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Restored Mack truck to anchor new Evel Knievel museum in Topeka

By on September 8, 2015

If there was anything Evel Knievel was known for, it was faith in his leaps. About two years ago, some of his biggest fans took a leap of faith when they bought his old touring Mack, which soon will have a home at the Historic Harley-Davidson dealership in Topeka, Kansas.

“Big Red,” the daredevil’s heavily customized 1974 Mack FS cabover, was quietly rusting away in Florida when actor and longtime Knievel fan Lathan McKay got wind of its whereabouts. He teamed up with Robb Mariani, host of SpeedTV’s American Trucker, and the long process to buy and restore the truck began.

“It was in Florida, but before that it had been in Phoenix and Las Vegas,” McKay says. “Robb and his team had done an episode on it, and then we spent about a year and a half convincing the owner to sell to us. Finally we actually got it, and that was a really big deal.”

Along the way, he’d met Mike Patterson, owner of the Historic Harley-Davidson of Topeka, which has a restoration shop. When Patterson got wind of the purchase, he quickly volunteered his facility for the renovations. Trouble is, he may have oversold his expertise just a little bit.

“I told him we’d restore it, but we’d never actually done a Mack,” Patterson admits. “We’d done some large military vehicles, including a small tank, and some old trucks, but nothing on the scale of this. But we knew we could put together the right team, and that it wasn’t something above our ability.”

In short order some of the industry’s best-known names were on hand, including: Todd Williams, a nationally known restorer; Chuck Stover of Kansas Powertrain, a tractor-trailer repair facility; and Topeka Trailer, which came in to handle the trailer side of things. All told, 96 people and businesses pitched in, from engine overhaul to sewing new curtains for the cab’s interior and reworking its upholstery. Whenever possible, the work stuck to the truck’s original specifications, right down to Goodyear tires made in Topeka. Through it all, McKay was never too far from the action.

“I’m the ‘detailed perfectionist nut’ of the project, if I have a title,” he says. “Mike was the ‘warlord of restoration,’ and he picked an amazing, brilliant team of specialists. Everybody involved did amazing work, and it’s just beautiful.”

Something to show off

Patterson had been thinking about adding onto his already-existing Harley museum at his shop, and as the truck progressed toward completion those thoughts turned to memorializing Knievel, who died in 2007, as well.

“We’ve been in the Harley-Davidson business for 66 years; I’m the third generation,” he says. “We’ve collected a lot of things over time, because we really
do wrap our arms around our history. We’ve got about 35 vintage bikes in our museum, as well as a lot of memorabilia, videos and photos. People really like going through there, and so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to envision adding an Evel Knievel museum into the space.”

The new, two-story, 16,000-squarefoot space means Big Red won’t be nuzzling up to current fan favorite, an unrestored 1932 VL motorcycle that Patterson describes as “totally unrestored, a true barn find,” but will have its own area — with plenty of room for more items.

That’s great news for McKay, who owns a collection of Knievel items “large enough to fill a Walgreens,” that includes fan letters, X-rays, parachutes, a statue, branded children’s toys and six bikes, including a white Harley-Davidson, that he tours around the United States.

“I love that the museum will be right in the center of the country,” he says. “We’re going to spend about a year taking Big Red around so that people can see it, and by then the museum will be finished and it can go back to its new home. I’m sure we’ll be taking it out again from time to time, though.”

Not for too long, however, Patterson hopes.

“It was really hard to see it leave,” he explains. “After you’ve been working on something for 18 months, it’s a little like withdrawal when it rolls off the lot. But the road is really where it needs to be, at least for a while. People are really enjoying seeing it, and it’s bringing back a lot of memories. Plus I know it’s coming back.”


What’ll You See?
When complete, the museum’s collection will include:

  • Six of Knievel’s bikes
  • More than 12 costumes
  • Helmets
  • Photos
  • Pinball and slot machines featuring Knievel’s stunts

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