The Man, The Myth, The Legend, Karl Kleve

Updated: 7 days ago


pc: Western Hills Press

Karl Kleve: A Crazy Car Lover Or Just Misunderstood?


Karl Kleve is the epitome of the saying 'there is often more than meets the eye.' Misunderstood? Troubled? Crazy? All of the above? Maybe so, but strip that away and you're left with a man with a passion for cars down to his very core. In fact, Kleve had dreamed to design the perfect automobile one day. After acquiring a nuclear engineering degree from The University of Cincinnati he worked for the US Army in WWII as part of the Manhattan Project and was the assistant of Howard Hughes. He received the title of “Serial Tinkerer” in his obituary.


Junkman of the Westside

Kleve was known by many people as a strange, homeless-looking man who could be found wandering the flea markets, junkyards, and local thrift stores. But unseen to the naked eye was a little known fact about this raggedy dressed man's true fortune. How much Kleve was actually worth is as much a mystery as Kleve himself but a conservative estimate would put his net worth between 5 and 7 million dollars. If you passed him on the street he looked like someone who had seen better days rather than a genius who owned property scattered all across Cincinnati.


While collecting odd pieces of 'junk' Kleve conducted many experiments. Tales of this mysterious man paint a scene familiar to the movie 'Back to the Future' inside Doc Brown's laboratory, but instead of a time machine, Kleve tinkered with a cure for baldness. Most of the property buildings Kleve owned were designed by himself but his true passion was undoubtedly the automobile.

Kleve's Passion for Cars

Karl Kleve was many things, but above all, he was a car lover. When his mother gave her 1936 Cadillac Sixteen to him, his fascination with cars became an obsession. This fueled his motivation in his conquest to collect some of the rarest and most valuable cars in the world. Make no mistake however, Kleve's collection in no way resembled the likes of an upscale showroom. But, underneath the rusty welds of inventory laid some of the rarest automobiles in the world. Kleve had such a large collection, most of his cars wasted away but he refused to sell any of them. He studied the hunks of metal like lab rats and his findings were incorporated in the twenty-four cars that he designed.


His exquisite Car Collection

One of his cars was 19 feet long equipped with aircraft tires that had the potential of landing a 20,000-pound plane. A common rumor believed by many claimed Kleve had designed a car that was powered by a small nuclear reactor which he drove around town until the FBI seized and sealed it away denying its existence. There is of course no way to verify these claims but this is merely one story that has lifted Karl Kleve to legend status.

His collection of the cars was so big and odd the large piles of vintage automobiles were often mistaken for junkyards. The remains of a B-29 Bomber could be found at Kleve Manor symbolizing the uniqueness of this misunderstood man. Some residents viewed that symbol as nothing more than an eyesore of rotting waste however. A complaint with the Cincinnati Zoning Commission was filed and court proceedings began April 11, 1997. The lawsuit 'Kleve vs The City of Cincinnati' lasted 3 years with Kleve initially receiving a favorable ruling. The Judge who presided over Kleve's case viewed his automobiles as collector vehicles which allowed Kleve to store them on his personal property. Eventually, this decision was overturned during the appeals process.

The Stolen Ferrari

In 1958, Kleve purchased a beautiful 1954 Ferrari. Well, he purchased the pieces of one anyway. The Ferrari 375 Plus rusting in Kleve's front yard was one of only five of its kind designed by Pinin Farina. Kleve purchased the rotting carcass of this fine automobile in 1958 for a mere $2,500. It was yet another diamond in the rough that could be found throughout Kleve's ever eroding landscape of undesirable treasures. Many decades later somebody recognized this diamond and the Ferrari was stolen from Kleve's property. The car was exported to Belgium and sold to former racecar driver and Belgian car Collector, Jacques Swaters. Swaters, who passed away in 2010, claimed an agreement was made with Kleve that allotted sole ownership of the vehicle to Swaters with an agreed purchase price of $625,000. Kleve who passed away in 2003, disputed the agreement; citing his agent at the time, Mark Daniels, made the agreement with Swaters without his authority. Years later, the Ferrari was sold at auction in 2014 to Victoria’s Secret owner Les Wexner for over 18 million dollars.



A man of vision

Kleve passed away on Christmas Eve, in 2003, sleeping peacefully in his home. His daughter Kristine said, "he wanted to be more than the junk man or a crazy man who buys cars. He wanted to be remembered as a person who lived for his dreams and fought for his right to collect cars and enjoy his real estate,"


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