STAUNTON, Ill. _ Russ Noel is an eternal optimist and uber-friendly, salt-of-the-earth kind of guy by nature. But nobody could have blamed him if he had been in a gloomy mood lately after a fire wiped out his main building and a 148 cars at his huge collector car dealership in rural southern Illinois.
When the smoke and ashes had finally settled down on a blaze that flattened a 26,000-square foot building August 8, Noel somehow still had his sunny disposition, and was well on his way to rebuilding, cleaning up and getting back to business as usual at Country Classic Cars.
“If you can believe it, with the help of my good help here, the fire was Tuesday night and they were back to selling cars Thursday!” he says. “Remarkable, isn’t it?
“Who knows what caused it. The blessing in disguise is that nobody got hurt. We’re moving ahead. My son and I both went to classic car auctions over the weekend and bought 16 new cars. We’re moving forward, it’s just a little speed bump for us … I’m trying to get prices on rebuilding and moving forward and we’re hoping to be back up with a new building by the end of this year. And next year we’ll be filled up with cars and nobody will be able to tell the difference.”
The building that was lost measured a massive 50 x 528 feet and was jammed bumper-to-bumper with cars of all vintages. It was one of three main storage buildings full of vehicles on the property along Interstate 55, and also housed the company’s business office.
Noel, 73, says he’s not sure what caused the fire in the cavernous metal building, and he doubts anyone will ever know for sure. The blaze almost certainly started in one of the cars, he says.
“They narrowed it down to one of about five cars in the middle of the building,” he says. “They kind of ruled [the cause] as ‘undetermined.’ I’m only guessing, but one of our first rules is that whenever we park one of the cars, even if it’s going to be outside, we always disconnect the battery. I’m guessing that somebody just forget to unhook a battery, or got busy or whatever … Or who knows if a rat got in there or a raccoon.
“We had about 142 cars in that building and six outside that got damaged.”
Firefighters from 11 different communities reportedly all showed up to fight the fire, but not before every car in the main building got torched. Still, Noel knows things could have been worse on several fronts.
“We were lucky when we designed [the dealership] years ago that the buildings were far enough apart, so the fire didn’t spread,” he said. “We told the fire department we had all the titles files in the office. Guess how many we lost? None! We have 620-some cars … and didn’t lose any of the titles. Luckily, my wife was smart enough, I guess, to make copies of the titles… That saved us a lot of work!”
Noel says the replacement building will be built to almost the same specs as the last one. He figures it will be about the same 50 x 528-foot dimensions. He knows a challenge bigger than putting up a new building will be trying to replicate the fleet of cars and trucks that was lost.
“You’re talking years or work to replace them, and some of them you might never replace” he admits. “Like we had just bought a real nice  Cadillac with 42,000 actual miles. We just had it shipped in from Pennsylvania. Now, you might find another 1960 Cadillac, but where are you going find one with low miles like that? … And there was a nice Rolls Royce in there … a ‘37 Ford street rod, a ’32 Studebaker, ’28 Studebaker, ’32 Plymouth. The list goes on and on.
“It ain’t like you can just go out and buy a new 2015, or 2016 model, you know?”