There’s nothing quite like a classic car; the pungent smell of aged leather or vinyl, the roar of the engine, its solid construction and the way the sun reflects off its mirror-polished chrome, something not seen on cars today. Whether your muse is a sporty and powerful 1970 Corvette LT-1, a collector’s dream 1956 Bentley Mark VI with all its grandeur, or a historic 1919 “Tin Lizzie” Model T Ford Coupe, nothing else you drive will ever do.
“Classic car” is a broad generic term encompassing many brands of cars considered “collectible,” and few people know more about them than Russell Noel, who owns Country Classic Cars near Staunton with his wife Anita. Modest and laid back, with a ready laugh, Russell is someone you’d share a cup of coffee with at the local café but not necessarily picture selling cars.
It might sound a bit cliché to say Russell stumbled into the classic car business by accident, but that’s exactly what happened. Nearly 30 years ago, he and Anita, then farmers, were taking their daughters out to breakfast and yard sales when a 1957 Chevy along the way caught Russell’s eye. He inquired if the man wanted to sell it. He said he wasn’t interested in selling it and didn’t feel he should because it hadn’t run in a year and a half. Undeterred, Russell shot him a price, the owner accepted it and the rest is history. “We brought it home and got it running, and it turned out to be a rare car with no back seat, called a businessman’s coupe. We sold it and that’s how we got started,” says Russell.
Three or four cars quickly grew to 40, and in 1998 Russell told Anita they should try their hand at selling classic cars for a living. They rented out their farm ground and bought land along Interstate 55 near Staunton and put up their first building. Though farming required good business sense, selling cars was much different. Anita says neither of them knew the Internet even existed when they first opened the business, but they now use it extensively and it has helped to put their business on the map. For the past two years, the business has also run ads on NBC Sports, which reaches 90 million homes in their target market. Despite that, Russell has stuck with using his trusty pencil and paper for conducting his day-to-day affairs. Grinning, he waves a small spiral notebook in the air. “I’m a little old-fashioned. Here’s my laptop,” he explains. And referring to the tall but neat stack of papers held together with a rubber band on the counter, he adds, “And that’s all of our cars.”
To date, buyers for their cars have come from all over the world, with foreign buyers primarily coming from Sweden and Australia. Route 66 runs right by the business, which has been a boost for the business. Anita says, “In the summer we get a lot of foreign tourists, and I think that has really helped us. Those people go back to whatever country [they’re from] and basically advertise [our business] for free. It can’t hurt.” And business is also booming in the U.S. Russell points at a map and rattles off the names of several cars and where they’ll be transported, including one they are preparing to ship to Alaska. Shipping cars overseas can be costly, but Russell just charges customers his cost. He’s heard about companies that make several hundred dollars on shipping, but he doesn’t believe that’s right. He says, “We’re just happy selling the car, and that works.”
Country Classic Cars hadn’t been open for long when a representative from Columbia Motion Pictures called to inquire about renting cars for a movie they were shooting. Russell told Anita about the call, and she said, “Oh yeah, right. They’re scam artists!” To ensure they were legitimate, Russell asked them to fax over their insurance policy, and they did. The movie Columbia was shooting was Ali, starring actor Will Smith. “They rented 50 cars for that movie and 46 of them were from us. They shot the movie in Chicago and let us come up and be on the set,” says Russell. Anita adds that the experience was really exciting.
The Noels can’t remember exactly how many movies have used cars from their inventory, but they figure as many as 10. Some of their cars were rented for Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and Weinstein Company Films purchased an old truck from them, which was personally delivered to Julia Roberts for the movie August: Osage County. Russell says Roberts recently posted photos of it on Facebook. Even late racecar driver Dale Earnhardt, Sr. purchased a car from them. “We had a car that was just like the one he actually raced and he bought it from us,” says Russell.
In 2014, representatives from the show American Pickers contacted the Noels and wanted to produce a reality TV show about them. While Russell might have agreed to it, Anita was concerned about their privacy and security. They both say representatives from the show really pushed for them to do it. But Anita says, “Everything about it would be bad except the money.”
Russell can’t praise his employees enough, and with the help of several salesmen and office personnel, Country Classic Cars has grown to 600 cars, 550 of which are sheltered in buildings. Since the business sits just off Interstate 55, travelers between St. Louis and Springfield can’t miss it. Each of several buildings on the property is jam-packed fender to fin with anything from a 1942 Hudson Super Six to a 1967 Chevy Camaro-enough to make any motor head salivate. And a long line of cars hugs the fence between the business and the freeway.
While Russell purchases 80-90 percent of the cars, some come in on consignment. He explains, “It’s kind of a guessing game. I bring one in that I’m real proud of like this ‘66 Mustang convertible that’s hard to come by, and it’ll bring in the mid-$20,000s plus; but then you bring in an old four-door and it might be the first to sell, so you never know.” The company deals mainly in what Russell considers to be “affordable” cars and sells 30-45 per month. The cars are hauled in by truck, and up to 21 can be brought in at a time.
The rarest car Classic Country Cars has sold is a 1969 Mercury Cougar Eliminator they purchased in 2014. “It was sort of a diamond in the rough,” says Russell. He knew it was a pretty rare car, but didn’t know for sure how rare until a Marti report (a Carfax report for Ford automobiles) came back on it. The Noel family was on vacation in South Carolina when someone called wanting to buy the car. Without the Marti report, it couldn’t be sold as the rarest model, so Russell quoted a price of $35,000. The Marti report came in right after that and confirmed their suspicions. The car was worth more like $50,000 to $60,000, but Russell didn’t waiver. He told the man, “Listen, I’m a man of my word, and I told you $35,000, and I’ll keep my word, but you need to send me a deposit. He knew I meant business.”
The most unique car they’ve sold to date is a 1911 Maxwell purchased from an estate. Russell says with relief that the owner had drained the gas from it, so all it needed was gas and a battery. “It was hand crank and we didn’t turn that thing over six times and it started up and purred like a kitten.” He explains, “I just rolled the dice and paid pretty good for that thing. I called the Maxwell registry club. They asked what I paid for it, and when I told them, they said that was probably what it was worth, and I thought uh-oh.” The salesmen priced it high enough to make a profit and it sold almost immediately to a buyer in Sweden.
What does the future hold for Country Classic Cars? Finding enough cars to keep the business going takes a lot of time, and Russell has to constantly be out looking for car inventory. “I still have fun traveling around, and Anita says it’s the thrill of the chase,” says Russell. “We’ve met a lot of nice people. It’s better than farming and most people in the old car business are pretty good. They’re like the old farmers – honest.” Russell and Anita and their employees will continue to sell classic cars their way, where a man’s word is gospel and a handshake closes the deal.
Country Classic Cars is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturdays. It is closed on the Fourth of July weekend, Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day weekend. The Noels request a donation of one dollar per person to look at the cars. You can also visit their website at www.classiccars.com.
Interesting Car Facts
- The first cars built didn’t have steering wheels. Drivers steered using a lever.
- In 1884, the world’s oldest running car was built in France. The De Dion Bouton Et Trepardoux Dos-a-Dos Steam Runabout was originally built for French Count De Dion and sold for $4.6 million at the RM Hershey Auction House in Hershey, Pa. in October 2011. It received a standing ovation from the crowd as it was driven onto the stage.
- In 1895, only four automobiles were registered in the United States.
- In 1898, the New York City Police Department used bicycles to pursue speeding cars.
- The first speeding ticket was issued in 1902.
- In 1905, a woman patented the windshield wiper.
- In its first year, the VW Beetle only sold 330 cars in the U.S.
- In 1960, a new Buick LaSabre sold for around $3,000.