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Written By Tom Olsen
Photos By Derek Hieb and Tom Olsen
Terry “TT” Thomas grew up in the Redfield, SD area, and his sons tell me he was quite the hard-working and enterprising man. According to his son, Wade, “He had a Type A personality, and was a fun-loving guy.” In addition to his business interests, Terry developed a passion for cars which he passed on to his four sons.
Terry bought his first car as a youngster of 16 in a 50/50 deal with his father. Not long after that, the Vietnam conflict was in full swing, and Terry enlisted in the US Navy for a four-year hitch. He served on a Navy ship off the shores of Vietnam for several months, and was also stationed in San Diego for much of his enlistment. After Terry’s initial car ownership he was already seriously hooked on cars, but being immersed in the southern California car culture really fueled his car interest.
Terry returned to South Dakota after his enlistment and began doing cable TV installations in Redfield. Joe Floyd from Midcontinent Communications gave Terry the opportunity to get into the cable business, so he started Thomas Communications in 1971. He began building cable systems in central South Dakota, but after a few years, Terry owned, and was building, cable systems in eight states. Wade tells me that each of the four boys started working for their dad at age 12.
As the business developed, Terry began investing in a few cars along the way. He bought several cars from a brother-in-law, and others from some of his crew members. Nearly all the cars purchased had a performance or collector flair to them. Terry enjoyed driving his cars and always brought them out for small-town parades in the area. Whether it be washing, waxing, or driving in parades, Wade says that his dad’s cars are attached to nearly every childhood memory he has.
Unfortunately, Terry developed health issues in 1992. He had heart surgery at that time, and the car collecting slowed down. By 1994, he had his first bout with cancer. Terry did well for the next several years, but the cancer eventually returned and he passed away in 2009. In settling the estate, the cars were divided up in a lottery system among the family members who were interested. The impressive group of cars included a 1964 GTO convertible, 1959 El Camino, 1980 Trans Am, 1967 GTO, 1958 Corvette, 1966 Corvette Stingray, and a 2001 Corvette.
Our cover car this month, the 1959 El Camino, is now owned by Travis Thomas. Terry bought the truck while he was stationed in San Diego. It started life as a phone company vehicle and was equipped with a 6-cylinder engine and 3-speed transmission. The truck came home with Terry when he left the Navy. When Travis got the truck it was pretty rough. It had been subjected to an amateur restoration years ago, and now had peeling black paint and plenty of rust. Travis took the truck to Ennis Lund’s shop, Cliff Avenue Upholstery and Restoration, for a total “restification” (restoration/modification). Over the course of a year, Ennis and his team totally transformed the once rusty El Camino. A dual 4-barrell, 425hp, 409ci engine with a Tremec 5-speed was installed. Headers with exhaust cutouts let the engine breathe. A custom leather interior was created, and the body was masterfully finished in a custom “Black Cherry” paint. The car now rolls on Boyds (Boyd Coddington) Wheels with an air ride suspension. The El Camino received rave reviews at the Winterfest of Wheels show a couple years back, and was most recently shown at the Ribs, Rods & Rock‘n Roll event in Vermillion. Travis looks forward to taking the car to Kool Deadwood Nights in the future.
Travis also has the 1967 GTO from the collection. His uncle bought the car new, and Terry bought it from the dealership when the uncle traded it in around 1970. This is an original car, showing just 60,000 miles on the odometer. It’s equipped with the 400 engine and the automatic transmission. Travis drives it “some” when he’s in Redfield, but he’s bringing it to Sioux Falls so he can enjoy it more often.
The oldest brother, Paul Whitley, selected the 1966 Corvette Stingray roadster. Paul tells me “this is a “100% original, 30,000 mile car!” (Although, he has changed out the Holley carb to an Edelbrock for better drivability.) It’s equipped with the 365hp, 327ci engine and Muncie 4-speed transmission. Paul drives the Corvette yellow roadster very seldom each year, “maybe around 40 miles.” He also has a 1975 Harley-Davidson Sportster from
The 1958 Corvette from Terry’s collection was originally purchased around 1980 or ’81 and is now owned by son Jay Whitley. Once powered by a 283ci engine, this Corvette is now powered by a Chevy 350 Ram Jet crate engine and a 4-speed. Jay had the body restored by Bernie’s Auto Body in Watertown. It’s now painted 1997 GMC red with the white cove insert.
Wade Thomas has a few cars from the collection. Some were acquired from the lottery system the boys used, and some he purchased from the estate. One of those cars is a red with white interior 1980 Trans Am Firebird. Terry bought this car new in Redfield, and he drove it in many of his travels while working an eight state area in his business. This was originally a turbocharged car, but the turbo failed and the engine package was replaced with a 1978 Pontiac 400 engine. Wade is planning a complete rebuild of this 58,000 mile car in the future.
Perhaps the most memorable car for Wade is the 1964 GTO convertible which he now owns. Terry bought this 389, tri-power, 4-speed car used in 1975. Wade drove this car to prom, and it’s also been in several parades. Terry enjoyed drag racing the GTO and did so extensively in 1975-77 at Thunder Valley Dragways. After Terry died, Wade had a full frame-off restoration done on the 78,000 mile car at Brandon Body Shop. The front fenders were replaced with new, and the car was refinished in black. The well-used engine was overhauled at that time and it now has about 1,000 miles since the rebuild. Wade believes “cars are meant to be driven.” When he had this car restored, he did it not as a “show” car, but as something he could drive and enjoy.
The black 2001 Corvette, which Wade owns, is a car he bought together with Terry in 2006. Wade recalls that he and Terry negotiated with the seller for a couple weeks on this one before the deal was made. When they bought the car, Terry was suffering with leg problems related to his cancer, so this one was bought with the automatic transmission. The Corvette is powered by the LS-1 engine and is now a very enjoyable summer driver.
Wade tells me that Terry’s car collection was part of his legacy. Each of the sons now has a share of that ongoing legacy as his own. In talking to the various sons, it’s apparent they are each proud of their part of the collection, and they are doing their best to preserve what their dad so enjoyed. Wade, for example, has three children and when the time comes, one will get the GTO, one the Trans Am, and one the Corvette. That will be the third generation involved with the collection. Now, that’s keeping a legacy alive! TMM