Depending on who you talk to, the traditional indoor shopping mall is either a dead business model or the next golden opportunity. One thing is for sure – the glory days of the suburban mall are well behind us. For years developers have tried to imagine responsible way to repurpose these properties for a changing world. But turning a long-dead mall into a classic car showroom may be one of the best we’ve seen so far.
About an hour west of Philadelphia lies the former Manufacturers’ Outlet Mall. Built in 1985 as a clothing outlet, it sits conveniently adjacent to the I-76 turnpike at the Morgantown, Pennsylvania exit. A simple ‘X’ structure with a center court, the single-story building was never fancy, never had a department store anchor. The mall eventually repositioned itself as a furniture outlet, but in 2011 it closed for good. It then sat vacant for years, a story repeated by so many other small regional malls.
Stewart Howden, a lifelong car enthusiast with professional experience managing private car collections and collector car auctions, had already been working on a new business concept when a colleague introduced him to someone in need of storage for his 400+ car collection. This private collector had acquired and repurposed other distressed properties over the years and had his eye on the dead Morgantown mall. He just needed the right partner to make it work as a business. Howden was just the guy.
In January of 2017, the vacant 336,000-square-foot building reopened as Classic Auto Mall with space for nearly 1,400 vehicles indoors. The new business model, beyond housing the investor’s collection, focused on being a world-class collector vehicle consignment house and showroom.
On a recent trip to the mall, it’s clear that Howden was onto something. This once-vacant facility is alive and well today, with more than 900 vehicles on display during our visit. All four wings were stacked with collectible cars and trucks ranging from the early 20th century onward. The mix is truly eclectic, as you can see in the photo gallery.
True to its roots, the mall itself is nothing fancy. Admittedly, not knowing how well this concept would even succeed, little money was spent on cosmetic renovation. In several places, signage for the former furniture stores still hangs on the wall. The food court letters live on too, though there’s no active kitchen at the moment. The original ceramic tile floor, if dated, is perfectly intact – an ideal surface for parking sometimes leaky old cars.
Carpeting, where it still exists inside old store spaces, tells a more honest story about the nature of today’s merchandise. The vehicles that have found a home in the mall are predominantly driver-grade examples, many of them home-built projects. By and large, these aren’t the picture-perfect, numbers-matching concours winners that win the big trophies. They lean toward the more approachable enthusiast models, the everyman’s collectible.
That’s not to say there aren’t some very rare examples on display as well. We weren’t expecting to find President Harry S. Truman’s personal Chrysler New Yorker on the floor, for example. Yet there it was, immaculate if uncelebrated sitting randomly alongside a much more modern Audi sedan. There’s also a Batmobile from the 1989 movie starring Michael Keaton in the title role. And a genuine aluminum-bodied Shelby Cobra.
Given the nature of the consignment business, the inventory changes frequently and occasionally includes numerous automotive-adjacent novelties. Fancy a full-scale replica of the Wright Brothers’ historical airplane? There happened to be one on offer the day we visited. There were also tractors, a Chris Craft boat, an old amusement ride, and other unexpected collectibles. It all adds to the visitor experience, which is blend of car show, museum, and dealership all in one.
“This area is so rich with car culture,” says Howden about southeast Pennsylvania. “I recently looked at the numbers, and of the 4,000 or so cars that have come through here since we opened, more than 3,000 of them were sourced from within 75 miles of our location.”
Situated halfway between the Philadelphia metro area and the popular classic car meccas of Hershey and Carlisle doesn’t hurt. In fact, Classic Auto Mall now hosts a number of shows and events on its own, taking advantage of its 28 acres of paved parking, enough to hold 2,500 vehicles. An adjacent 188-room Holiday Inn hotel connects directly to the east wing of the mall, its success directly intertwined. The mall’s resurrection likely contributed to the hotel’s recent major renovation, each now helping drive the other’s future success.
For car lovers of all stripes, Classic Auto Mall is a destination unlike any other. Whether you come in looking for a particular model or just want to find your next great project, it’s an opportunity to see a large variety of vehicles all in one space. There’s no charge to browse and you can stay as long as you’d like. And if you show up on the right day and time, you just might experience something else original. Howden records the weekly Classic Auto Mall podcast onsite in a glass-enclosed studio right inside the front door. You never know who might be sitting in the booth with him.