There was a time when Darold Kohout had a job that everybody could understand and appreciate. After all, working in the grocery business is a job that is solid and responsible. And it’s a job everyone assumes comes with a paycheck.
Then, Kohout bought a Model A as a second family car, at the urging of his wife, Lynette.
Afterwards, when people asked him what he did for a living, “I told them that I sold old parts for Model A’s,” Kohout recalled. It was almost always followed with another question, usually from people who wondered why he wasn’t destitute. “What else do you do?”
These days, and for the last four decades, selling parts for Model A’s and other older Fords is exactly what Darold, Lynette, and their daughter Susan and son Mike, have been doing for a living.
“We’re a Mom and Pop operation,” Darold Kohout said.
While it is a family-run operation, Sacramento Vintage Ford, located about 20 miles down the freeway from California’s State Capitol building, is much more than a tiny counter with a few fan belts stacked on shelves.
At 70,000 square feet, it is larger than many of the grocery stores where Kohout made his living years ago. Every wall looks like a gallery, with neon and memorabilia competing for space. Some displays are more museum pieces than showcases for parts. The 1950s-inspired diner and gift shop bring the doo-wop era alive so much that you could expect girls in poodle skirts and saddle shoes to stop by at any moment. World famous hot rods come and go on display like loaner cars.
Much More Than a Parts Store
As the name implies, the business of Sacramento Vintage Ford is selling parts for old Fords, from Model T’s to trucks of the 1970s. But it is as much an amusement park for hot rod buyers as it is a parts store.
“When we did the store, we wanted it to be a destination that people drive up to see,” said Kohout about the decision eight years ago.
It was a decision solidly based as much on business as it was on Kohout’s personal sense of fun. “Atmosphere is huge,” Kohout said.
“If you want people to spend money with you, you have to look like you’re going to be here next year.”
That the Kohouts would still be in business after a year was not something most people would have bet on when Sacramento Vintage Ford first opened its doors.
“We got in this business after I bought the Model A as a second car,” Kohout explained. “I started looking for parts [around town] and figured there was a market for this kind of thing.”
That was easy to assume. The biggest source for those parts, outside of backyards and garages, was mail order.
“You could still buy Model A parts from the Sears and J.C. Whitney catalog,” Kohout recalled of the late 1960s. Kohout was motivated to follow his idea, as the grocery business was growing a bit thin for him.
“People were complaining about food prices,” he recalled. “It was getting irritable.”
By comparison today, he noted, “eighty percent of the parts we sell are to people who are enjoying themselves.” And even with an uncertain outlook for the market, Kohout seemed destined to find a niche in the car business. “I’m a merchandiser by birth,” Kohout said.
But his dad had been a Pontiac mechanic, perhaps passing along a latent family gene for mechanics. Even his explanation for buying the Model A offers only a hint at his mechanical aptitude. He said he bought the car as a favor to Lynette.
“There was a girl at school who had a car that looked like a Model A and I thought it was cute,” said Lynette.
To this point, their stories are similar. But then Lynette, who said she “likes cars as art, not so much to drive them,” uncovers another side of Darold. They needed the Model A, it seems “because Darold turned our real second car into a dragster.”
The Early Years
Since the opening of Sacramento Vintage Ford, Darold and Lynette have run the business side-by-side.
“She has always been the bookkeeper,” Kohout said. “At the beginning, it was just me and I hired my first employee after about a year.”
That employee is still a friend and customer 40 years later.
The first store was one-tenth the size of the current one.
“It was a small store and I worked in it about two days a week, in between my regular job,” he said. “When it got to be three and four days a week, I weaned myself off the grocery business.”
Besides what he learned working on his Model A, Kohout confessed that he didn’t have any training and didn’t know much about Fords.
“I started out selling parts from 1909 to 1939 because 1939 seemed like a nice number. At the time, I didn’t know that the 1939 and 1940 were almost identical cars, that’s how naive I was.”
From that fragile, part-time start, Sacramento Vintage Ford has outgrown two smaller stores before settling in its current location.
“We’ve done this little by little by little,” said Kohout. When the first store became too cramped, Sacramento Vintage Ford moved to a new location that was almost three times larger. “It was 17,000 square feet and I thought I’d never outgrow it.”
But eight years ago, Sacramento Vintage Ford was flat out of room, with overstock on the shelf stacking six feet tall, he said. The family was faced with a critical decision: did they want to grow or slow things down?
“I know if you stagnate, it opens up the door for other people to come in and the market was still growing,” said Kohout.
When he designed the current 70,000 square foot building, he wasn’t sure if he would ever fill it up.
“I knew when you deal with car bodies they take up space,” he explained. “And we wanted people to look at the store as much as a destination as a place to buy parts.”
Kohout was confident about the future. Others were skeptical.
“The banks thought we were crazy,” he admitted.
So far, Kohout has surprised the banks.
From his naive start in the business, Kohout has assembled one of the largest inventories of parts for 1909 to 1956 passenger cars and 1928 to 1978 trucks.
“Model As and trucks are still huge for us, especially for restoration, but there is a lot of crossover to the hot rod market,” said Kohout.
Sacramento Vintage Ford has all of the parts that were made for the car originally, said Kohout, including rubber, brakes, chrome strips, hydraulic parts for the top and suspension pieces.
In fact, looking around the showroom at Sacramento Vintage Ford is a reminder of a simpler time. Tires in skinny stock sizes are stacked on the floor, looking more like those in a bicycle store than modern Goodyear. In the warehouse, tucked next to the shipping department, Sacramento Vintage Ford has what appear to be old-time sewing machines from a factory. Above them are wooden forms with diagrams of various wiring harnesses.
“We’ve been making wiring harnesses since day one,” said Kohout. For authenticity, he makes them exactly as the original, complete with braided tape or fabric coverings, wound on a machine designed by Kohout’s production manager.
Keeping Up the Trends
In addition to restoration parts, Sacramento Vintage Ford offers many street rod products, from the chassis and body to accessories to build a complete car. Although the inventory for restoration is comprehensive, Kohout is more discriminating about what he stocks for street rods.
“A street rod is about trends, and hot rods are closer to restoration,” said Kohout. “You have to be careful because there is not much crossover but you do have to offer choices.”
When it comes to deciding which street rod parts to stock, Kohout trusts his instincts.
“The first question we ask is whether we like it. If it appeals to me, and I’m pretty basic, then I have a pretty good idea it will sell.”
Nonetheless, the inventory at Sacramento Vintage Ford is comprehensive to the point of including 18,000 part numbers, all of which are grouped into catalogs.
Given the exacting nature of the car projects they have, many customers at Sacramento Vintage Ford look more for personalized service than self-serve.
“A salesman can be with a customer or on the phone for 15 minutes or up to an hour,” said Kohout, who has a staff of between 30 and 35 people, depending on the season.
The store also maintains a ten-person call center, where customers can order parts directly.
“A lot of people have our catalogs and know the part number they need so they don’t need to talk to a salesman,” said Kohout.
Manufacturing also lets Kohout hedge his bets that he won’t run out of a part when his customers are demanding it.
He explained that production in the restoration industry can ebb and flow like waves on a beach.
“Manufacturers keeping up with demand can be a problem,” he said.
Making parts in small batches and limited production means that the restoration market is not like your modern parts store, said Kohout.
A distributor cap, for example, can come from three or four different sources, “but we still can be out of a part for six months if there’s a break in production,” said Kohout. “Most customers don’t understand that.”
Besides making a few parts himself, Kohout said the best defense against parts shortages is to anticipate the roller coaster nature of production and overbuy when parts are available. Experience helps to predict when that will happen.
“You have to stock up to cover the period of time when you think the part won’t be manufactured,” explained Kohout who, in some extreme cases, has had to tell customers that they may have to wait as long as a year before they can get a part they need.
An original Model A Ford chassis sits in the middle of one of the shop's displays. It serves as a great selling tool for the company's parts.
A Family Place
When you walk through the front doors of Sacramento Vintage Ford, it’s obvious that this is more than just a place that sells parts.
Perhaps it’s an icon of the T-roadsters, the flame-bedecked “Kookie II,” that is the first thing you see.
But if you don’t hurry, it will be gone.
Not to worry, it likely will be replaced with yet another superstar of the hot rod ranks. Famous and award winning hot rods hang out at Sacramento Vintage Ford as much as the customers. The Batmobile, the Munster Koach, the Foose-designed “Impression”, among many others, are likely to show up on a moment’s notice and just as suddenly disappear.
“I just put feelers out,” he said. “I send emails and then get to keep the cars between shows.”
He admits being a bit nervous about having cars worth a million dollars or more within an arm’s reach of his customers.
“The builders are most gracious with me,” he said. “We couldn’t do half of what we do without them.” It is just “one of those little things that make the place exciting,” said Kohout.
It’s a touch that clearly draws customers. He recalls the day that the Cherry Nova, a car done for the TV show “Overhaulin’”, was delivered for display.
“We had people following it on the truck to see where it was going,” he said. That excitement bleeds over to other parts of the store, as well. “That’s why we did the diner,” Kohout explained.
The working lunch counter is outfitted with a classic checkerboard floor and tuck and roll booths. It serves as a refuge for family members when dad wants to shop.
“It’s a family place,” said Kohout, adding that the diner has coloring books for kids that were donated by Edelbrock, and crayons supplied by the restaurant chain Mel’s Drive-In.
“It’s also a place where a wife can sit and read a book while her husband shops.”
The eclectic atmosphere extends to the displays, which highlight the memories that attract hot rodders to the sport in the first place.
The most well-known recreates an old hot rod shop, complete with a lakes roadster that looks like any garage of the 1950’s.
“I saw a display like it at the Peterson Museum in Los Angeles, so yes, it has a museum influence.”
With painstaking attention to authenticity, down to the greasy and beat-up floor jack and motor stand, the display, designed and arranged by Sacramento car collector Bruce Woodward, has earned a singular honor. It became one of the most recognized covers of Rod and Custom Magazine.
“It’s the first static display they ever put on a cover,” said Kohout. “I was really honored when they asked.” Although the display is static, little by little, it changes with the help of customers.
“People bring stuff in and we add it to the display,” said Kohout. “It’s a pretty exciting business when people are that much into their hobby. They see the displays and point to something that gets their attention and get a smile on their face, and those are the people who are going to tell somebody else.”
After decades in the business, Kohout has seen trends come and go.
“We don’t sell any T-bucket parts anymore and the smooth look went away about five years ago,” he noted.
“Chrome and rubber are coming back and people seem to like hot rods more than street rods.”
“The interest in rat rods is exploding right now,” he said, suggesting that the sudden surge is perhaps driven by the same economics that drove teenagers to hot rodding years ago.
“They go back to basics,” he said. “They’re simple and easy to build. The industry is pricing youth out of the sport.”
He sees rat rods as an avenue to stimulate interest from a new generation of customers. But whether the future is rat rods or hot rods or anything in between, Kohout’s store will always look like a combination car show, museum and somebody’s attic. It reflects her husband’s personality, said Lynette. And she adds with a joking smile, “he was always a collector. I was afraid he wouldn’t sell any of it.”
Sacramento Vintage Ford
Address: 2484 Mercantile Dr., Rancho Cordova, California 95742
Phone: (888) 367-3100
Owners: Darold & Lynnette Kohout