Our Neighbors...Harvey BenkoTo Harvey Benko of Cloquet, few things in life are as good as a 1968 Mercury Cougar.
By: Jeff Papas, Pine Journal
To Harvey Benko of Cloquet, few things in life are as good as a 1968 Mercury Cougar.
For Benko, the car he bought and restored is just one reminder of the 13 years of auto shows he’s staged across the Northland.
On Aug. 3, though, Benko will run his last show. The car show at Veterans Park will bring down the curtain on his longtime labor of love.
“We’ve been working on the Cloquet car show since February,” Benko said. “It takes a long time and a lot of money. It runs about $5,000 by the time we’re done and there’s a lot of collecting, talking to people, finding giveaways and stuff you do to raise money for it.
“I’ve always been lucky to have good people surrounding me, great friends,” he added. “We somehow wind up in the black every year.”
Benko’s childhood was spent around cars.
“I’ve always loved cars,” he said. “When I was young my father taught me to work on engines. He was a good mechanic. My first car was a 1956 Chevy and it ran great. I’ve always loved automobiles and racing.”
After a stint in the Air Force with a B-52 squadron, Benko ran a McGarvey coffee franchise and worked in retail management until his retirement about 10 years ago. By then, he was into auto shows thanks to a longtime friend.
“Bones Crandall from Cloquet used to do these,” Benko said. “Then he asked me to help on a show he did, and I stayed on.”
And, given his lifelong love of cars, Benko was hooked.
“Classic cars, shiny pipes, the smell of fuel and oil and gasoline, it was a lot of fun,” he said. “I’ve really enjoyed it.”
Along the way, Benko has met a lot of great people but laments the passage of some of the classic cars of the industry.
“Style,” he said. “The old cars had so much style and grace about them. The ’56 and ’57 Chevys were heartthrobs for a lot of people. I had ’63 Custom Coupe with a 396 in it. That was a nice car.
“Nowadays, though, they make them look European. They have turbos in them and it’s not raw horsepower anymore. It used to be beautiful to lift the hood and see what was going on in a car and how I could fix it. Now I say ‘I haven’t been to school for this one.’”
So for Benko, the car shows are more than just nostalgia.
“Everyone likes the older cars,” he said. “You can work on them, revamp them, beef them up and do what you want. It’s not the same as today. It used to be raw horsepower from the motors to the rear wheels. That era has faded away, but we keep that alive with the hot rodders. We see so many beautiful cars.”
Aside from the old cars, Benko also likes the people who exhibit at his shows.
“You see a lot of the repeats that come to the car shows, people around the area and once in awhile you get people from further away,” he said. “These last two weeks I’ve had 30 calls from Minneapolis and south of there. There are a lot of new cars being built up and shown.”
The lifeblood of the shows is, of course, the newly restored cars.
“There are a lot of new cars being built up and shown,” Benko said. “At the Carlton Daze show I did last week, I counted about 21 cars that we had never seen before, and that’s really great. Car shows and owners, that’s one of the things I enjoy is talking to these people. The problem is I don’t know when to keep my mouth shut!”
Benko’s gift of gab is also expressed in his cell phone bill.
“When the Cloquet show comes up, I get about 40 calls a day from people and my cell phone is surgically attached to me,” he joked. “These are people who don’t just want to say hi, they want to know about the camping, what’s going on in town, and the motor show in the afternoon. Ninety percent of the people have never been here before.”
Benko estimates he has to charge his cell phone twice a day when the shows near.
“And then there are the cars, which are the reason we all come here,” he said.
‘The Rat Pack’
Not every car at the shows is necessarily a thing of beauty. And in the world of car shows, that’s a good thing.
Several of Benko’s regulars display “Rat Rods.” And if you don’t know what those are, well, you’re in for a treat.
“That’s a whole different thing,” Benko laughed. “A rat rod is the car you dragged out from behind Grandpa’s barn. You put new tires on it, fix the brake and fuel lines and either leave it rusty or spray it black.”
While that may be a bit of an overgeneralization, Benko says it’s not too far from the truth in some cases.
“There is a personal relationship between a rat rod owner and his car,” he said. “They are so unique, it blows your mind the things that these guys come up with. Last weekend in Carlton, I asked a guy what make his rat rod was and he said, ‘I don’t know, you tell me.’ I asked him what year it was and he said, ‘I don’t know, you tell me.’ It’s made up of about five or six different cars. All I care about it is that it runs, and runs fast.”
Compare and contrast that to Benko’s own refurbished 1968 Cougar.
“I found that car sitting in a warehouse in Minneapolis, where it had been for 28 years,” Benko said. “It took me about two and a half years to get it on the road again. They had it on concrete so moisture had eaten out the floorboards in addition to everything else we did. I had it on a Dyno recently and it’s still got about 400 horsepower so I’m proud of that.”
And then there are Benko’s regulars.
“My favorite car I ever saw at a show (other than his own)? There’s a fellow with a ’58 Impala, black with a drop top, that is beautiful. A gal has a ’55 T-Bird and I love that thing. One fellow has a beautiful gray Mustang and he bought a golf cart too and turned it into a mini-Mustang. That’s so damn cute it’s unreal. It’s a Mustang and its ‘mini-me’!”
Yet, all good things must come to an end.
‘I love my town’
Benko is a 100-percent disabled veteran with two artificial hips.
“The VA has been good to me,” he said. “I worked with the injuries but they got worse and worse. When I worked with McGarvey, I’d lift 15,000 pounds of merchandise a month by hand. So my health deteriorated a bit, and my physical conditioning and my back got worse.”
His doctor told him to slow down.
“My doctor said by age 60 I’d be in a wheelchair, but I said ‘I’m a Bohunk, and you don’t know a Bohunk very well,’” Benko said. “But my back is starting to show its ugly face.”
And so, after 13 years, he’s had enough.
“As much as I love this stuff, it seems like I have lost my passion for it,” Benko said. “It is so much work, and I’ve been lucky to have my wife enjoy it with me, right from the very start.”
Benko’s wife Mikey has been there throughout.
“She is my very best friend,” Benko said. “If it wasn’t for her, sometimes I’d sit down and cry. She’s been my head secretary, been the bookkeeper and has done tons and tons of paperwork. Tuesday morning she was up until two o’clock working and the Friday night before Carlton Daze it was three o’clock. She does a lot of things behind the scenes that no one ever sees.”
And in perhaps a sweet irony, Benko’s last show on Aug. 3 will mark the couple’s 45th wedding anniversary. He handles that fact with typical humor.
“People ask me where I’m taking my wife for our anniversary,” he said. “I say I’m taking her to Veterans Park and sparing no expense. I’m a great guy!”
Then he grows more serious.
“I’ll try to make it up to her,” he promised.
With the last show just around the corner, Benko says he probably won’t miss the work and the drudgery -- but he will miss showing off his home town.
“The shows bring new people into our community,” he said. “I was born and raised here and I love my town. I enjoy the shows and the city. We have a nice city, a very nice community and I’m happy to bring new people in.
“It’s like inviting people to your house.”