Two cultural events have changed the definition of the word garage. It was originally from the French and roughly translated as “to dock at a port.” It is now better described as “a playroom for adults.” The first event was the emergence of home improvement as a widespread hobby at the end of the 20th century. The second was the concurrent trend in the building industry to expand the size of garages to house outsized lawn tractors, quad-runners, motorcycles, snowmobiles, classic cars, camping trailers, and our overload of sports equipment in addition to cars. New housing developments in California come with a minimum garage size of four cars. While the garage is the last room of the modern American house to be remodeled, it is also the largest room.
The concept of a garage you can live in is not new. Horace Dodge, who with brother John was supplying parts for Henry Ford’s Model A in 1905 in Detroit, built an admired and dedicated garage with a single door and a car-sized turntable to fit 10 or so cars inside. From it emerged the first Dodge automobile in 1906. Demolished in 1989, the Dodge garage was likely the first “man cave,” a term coined by The Boston Globe in 2007.
Early man cave creator Gordon Apker envisioned the modern car nuts’ “Garage Mahal” in 1972. That’s when he expanded a large chicken coop on his Puget Sound farm into what is now a cluster of seven buildings that hold his collection of 70 or so cars. He filled the buildings with displays of “petrobilia.” These are items that remind experienced car nuts of the atmosphere and decoration that surrounded their first exposure to cars, likely before and shortly after World War II. Apker has auto dealer and service station signs by the hundreds, made with ceramic coatings and neon lights, hanging above his rare cars and collections of tools, antique picnic supplies, and motoring clothing draping full-size mannequins. Recently Apker purchased two lighted neon signs at the Barrett-Jackson auction extravaganza in Scottsdale, “... and I paid $20,000 for them. That's more than I paid for all of the hundreds of signs in the chicken coop.”
Thus has evolved the garage you can live in. It’s not just a museum or gallery, but an active room with machinery for work, pool tables for play, kitchens and bars for entertaining, and stuffed couches for relaxing. It’s decorated with petrobilia that reminds car nuts of the atmospheres where they first fell in love and deep obsession with the automobile.
Automotive journalist Phil Berg has been writing about cars for more than 25 years. Among his projects are three volumes of Ultimate Garages. Find out more about him on his website www.philberg.com.