Kilgore Trout profile picture Kilgore Trout 5 years ago
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While at my parents' house for Thanksgiving, my dad was pointing out some custom woodworking he'd done on the house and mentioned that the wood came from Karl Kleve's house. I didn't know who Karl Kleve was. I was in for a story. #BlogPost

Ferrari only made five examples of the 375 Plus race car. This one spent several decades less than a mile from my house.
Ferrari only made five examples of the 375 Plus race car. This one spent several decades less than a mile from my house.

So who was Karl Kleve and why does my dad have pieces of his mansion in his house?

Well, Kleve was an eccentric billionaire who was a local celebrity of almost legendary status until he passed away from cancer in 2003 at the age of 90. His daughter is quoted in his obituary as saying, “He dreamed of designing the perfect automobile. He had a keen sense of justice and a strong sense of family. And he definitely wasn’t held by tradition.”

He certainly wasn’t traditional. He was a nuclear engineer for the US Army, had worked on the Manhattan Project, and was an associate of Howard Hughes — and was just as insane, which is probably why the two worked so well together. His obituary described him as a “serial tinkerer,” which was a pretty accurate description. Little did many people know, but the strange, old, homeless-looking man scouring all the local thrift stores, flea markets, and junkyards was actually a billionaire genius with tens of millions of dollars’ worth of property scattered all across Cincinnati, collecting every odd piece of junk he came across to fiddle with and, like some kind of twisted Doc Brown or Stu Pickles, created some pretty “out there” inventions (including a cure for baldness). Most of the properties he owned (many of which were apartment buildings he designed and built himself) existed almost for the sole purpose of storing his ever-growing hoarder stash of gizmos and doodads.

But most of all, Karl Kleve was a car guy. Ever since he bought his mom’s 1936 Cadillac Sixteen, cars always fascinated him, and he began collecting them, stashing them wherever he could find space on one of his properties. As his collection grew and as his mental faculties waned, the majority of his cars (many of them quite rare and valuable) wasted away (some of them literally had trees growing up through them), but he would always refuse to sell them to anyone who was interested because he always had plans for each and every one of them. He would study them and use them for inspiration for the 24 different prototype cars he designed. I could not find any pictures of any of his automotive prototypes, but one report I read described the Kleve 22 as being 19 feet long and featured aircraft tires rated up to 20,000 pounds. There were even rumors (unconfirmed, but believed by many) that he had created one that was powered by a miniaturized nuclear reactor that he even drove around town a few times until the FBI came by one day to seize it and deny it ever existed.

He had so many cars (and a fuselage from a B-29 bomber) on so many properties that some of his larger stashes of automobiles were occasionally mistaken for junkyards (my mom didn’t realize until my dad and I were having this conversation that the “junkyard” near where she grew up was actually one of Kleve’s rotting car collections). After many complaints from neighbors, the city tried to force him to get rid of some of his cars; he told the judge in 1990, “Do you know anyone in America who’s limited to two cars? Especially one who loves cars? Cars are my life.”

How does this relate to the beautiful 1954 Ferrari racer pictured above? Well, in 1958, it became a part of his ever-growing collection, purchased for $2500 as a burnt-out husk:

While at my parents' house for Thanksgiving, my dad was pointing out some custom woodworking he'd done on the house and mentioned that the wood came from Karl Kleve's house. I didn't know who Karl Kleve was. I was in for a story. #BlogPost - Blog

Like most of the rest of his collection, the 375 Plus was squirreled away on a trailer, surely not forgotten but badly neglected, until sometime between 1985 and 1989, when somebody recognized how much it was actually worth and stole it. Somehow, it ended up in the hands of Jacques Swaters, a Belgian collector, Ferrari dealer, former racer, and personal friend of Enzo Ferrari. Years later, in 1999, Kleve found out about the car, confirmed it was, in fact, his stolen Ferrari, and managed to come to an amicable out-of-court settlement with Swaters that allowed Swaters to keep the car for $625,000. It all seemed open-and-shut, but after the deaths of both Swaters and Kleve, Swaters’ heirs tried to sue Kleve’s heirs for “withholding parts” belonging to the car. Then, in the middle of all of this and for reasons I don’t fully understand (something having to do with some ambiguities in the title and the illegal transport of the car to Belgium), several other parties elsewhere in Ohio and also for some reason in Paraguay and Switzerland tried to lay claim to the car. Somehow, in 2013, four of the parties laying claim to the vehicle agreed to “extinguish all claims and counterclaims” and allow the auctionhouse Bonhams to sell it so they could split the money between them. It sold to Les Wexner, the billionaire owner of Victoria’s Secret at the Goodwood Festival of Speed for 10.7 million pounds ($16.5 million).

Karl Kleve's home before it was demolished
Karl Kleve's home before it was demolished

Now that that fascinating aside is taken care of, there is still the question of how that all ties in with the woodwork in my parents’ house. Well, my parents built a new house in 2013. My dad is a carpentry hobbyist and, while they did have professionals build all of the structural components of the new house, my dad did all the woodworking for the inside, from the crown mouldings, to the baseboards along the walls, to the doors, to the flooring, to the decorative wood beams and supports. He also likes to get creative with recycling old wood for his projects — that way, he says, every piece of wood in his house has a story to tell. We have pieces of wood salvaged from our old house, from old furniture, from my grandparents’ house, and from even more peculiar places, such as the ones he had just finished shortly before Thanksgiving and was excited to show me. They looked like normal, everyday, wooden baseboards, except you could tell by the tighter wood grain that it was a finer-quality wood than the cheap pine or oak most people would buy for that sort of thing from the hardware store. It turns out that it was actually mahogany and that it had been salvaged from Karl Kleve’s house. See, when Kleve died, his beautiful, historic house (which stood less than a mile from where I live now) was in such horrendously unsafe and unsanitary condition that it sadly had to be condemned. My dad happened to know a guy on the demolition crew and asked him if he could salvage any decent wood from this historic house. And all of it was mahogany.

And that’s how I have less than six degrees of separation from a rare, $16.5 million Ferrari in England.