“Hemi,” gearhead shorthand for engines that have hemispherical combustion chambers and rounded pistons, is synonymous with power. Located near Houston, Hemi Hideout is home to a Texas-sized collection of pristine vintage vehicles, including Triumph motorcycles, John Deere tractors, and 11 cars sporting the eponymous engines. But brawn isn’t the only thing on display here; there’s plenty of beauty too: The collection also features more than 3,500 dazzling neon signs, gas pumps, kiddie rides, and natural oddities.
Owner John Hovas has been collecting for almost a decade—Hemi Hideout opened in 2013 with 280 unique pieces, mostly advertising gas, oil, and Dodge and Plymouth cars. “I wanted to do something ridiculous before I got too old,” Hovas says. He credits a whole team of people for putting their hearts and souls into making his dream a reality, including interior designer Shelly Gates and artist Bill Seitz. Hovas says that without Gates’ “feminine touch,” the place might have turned out to be just another uninspired man cave.
The 21,700-square-foot space (the largest timber building of its type in Texas) celebrates both the natural and manmade worlds all under one massive roof. The building is as unique as the collection it holds, with 16-inch square Douglas fir posts and exposed scissor-arched beams working their way up to a 5.5-story-high cupola.
Inside, you’ll find amethyst-filled geodes, a wooly mammoth tusk, a 265,000-year-old petrified wood slab transformed into a table roomy enough to seat a whole family, and a portrait of famed exhibition shooter Adolf Topperwein made from bullet holes. It’s hard to compete with all that neon and chrome, but Hovas isn’t stopping anytime soon.
“Now, everybody thinks it’s full—but it’s only halfway done,” he says.
Will brake for neon
Hovas loves to share stories about his signs and collectibles, pointing out the rarest pieces. A circular 1918 sign is the first version of an electric Texaco sign and the only one of its kind still in existence. A 1933 Dr. Pepper sign showing the bespectacled doctor is one of four known to exist, and a large round porcelain sign for Musgo gas, a company in business from 1927 to 1931, is one of only 27 ever made. Seven of them became septic tank lids and not surprisingly lost their paint on the downside. The one in Hovas’ collection is intact and he encourages visitors to feel the subtle layers of baked glass that make the porcelain.
Hovas takes road trips across North America, searching for signs at auctions, going as far north as Canada’s Prince Edward Island. His favorite is an oversized 1930s neon spur sign from Jackson, Wyoming. “We turned it upside down and found one sign,” Hovas says. The tiny, but highly detailed metal sign features a galosh-wearing cat advertising Goodrich rubber boots. Closer to home, Hovas found the “Dick’s Elbow Room” sign that once hung outside of a beer joint in Lockhart, Texas. “We were in a snake pit, this jungle, rooting around for old signs,” Hovas says. “We picked up the sign and found three snakes. That’s true devotion.”
The cowgirl currently leaning up against the sign on display is an addition crafted by Bill Prokopuk in Hemi Hideout’s workshop. Like Hovas, Prokopuc shifted gears in retirement and now refurbishes, repairs, or redesigns everything you see in the museum. Hovas points out that every car, tractor, and neon light in the place is in working condition. As if on cue, a totally reworked, kiddie elephant ride belts out Johnny Cash’s “One Piece at a Time.”
“We welded on a furrowed brow, made him carnivorous, gave him bloodshot eyes, cut off the saddle, and put a Hemi engine on him,” Hovas explains. “Then we electrified it.” Hovas paid $200 for the discarded ride—and estimates that he and Prokopuk put $20,000 worth of work into modifying it. “We’re becoming kids again,” he says.
Bone shakers and super bees
While the neon signs all but demand visitors’ attention, 21 Dodge and Plymouth muscle cars from the ‘60s and ‘70s give Hemi Hideout its name. Hovas has 11 official Hemis in his collection, but they’re not exactly hidden here. The cars’ mirror-like finishes reflect the overhanging neon. Their high-impact colors, with names like Sublime, Pink Panther, and Vitamin C Orange, add to the sensory overload. Seitz’s Road and Track-style paintings for each car compliment the exhibit.
In keeping with the automotive theme, statuesque gas pumps advertise 17-cent gas. Prokopuk sandblasted, repainted, and rewired each unique pump, including a 1923 Roman column gas pump. A Bluebonnet Gas Salesmaker pump is decorated with Texas’ state flower. Hemi Hideout is also home to a ‘50s diner complete with a soda counter and red-and-white Naugahyde booths. For Hovas, it’s all about meeting people and sharing his collections. “It’s just fun talking about this stuff,” he says.
The museum has its share of people-powered transportation, too, including a 1900 American-made shockless “bone shaker” tricycle, a big wheel bicycle, 1940s kiddie pedal cars, and a bicycle built for four. When he was a teenager, Hovas had a Dodge Super Bee like the 1970 banana yellow one on display.
“For me, [cars are] in my blood, and you just won’t get it out until you plant me in the ground,” Hovas says.