Country Classics: Growing in the Heartland

Russ Noel has found success farming for old cars at Country Classics in Southern Illinois.
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Russ Noel with a ‘56 Dodge — one of 600 cars on the lot at
Country Classics.

Russ Noel didn’t really plan to have his collector car business anchored along probably the most famous road in the United States. It was sort of an accident that an actual chunk of Historic Route 66, the “Mother Road” piece of pavement that stretched from Chicago to the Pacific Ocean, happened to run right past the dealership’s back door.

The choice of location was more a product of what was in the dealership’s front yard — busy Interstate 55 that runs north and south through southern Illinois. With not much else for motorists to look at but miles of southern Illinois flatlands, Country Classics sticks out like Mt. Rushmore along the roadside.

Still, there is something so grass-roots, folksy and uncomplicated about Country Classics that you could swear it belongs in another era — maybe an era when early-1950s pickups, 1940s sedans and pre-war coupes that fill Noel’s eclectic inventory were still on the road, working hard in their “first” lives and rolling up and down the original Route 66.

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A 1971 Buick Skylark, ’50 Chrysler and ’67 Mercury Cougar are
parked near the entrance to the office and gift shop in the
Country Classics main building.

If you show up in the little town of Staunton on a weekday, you might be lucky enough to catch Noel ducking in and out of his office or tinkering with one of the 600-some cars strewn about the dealership, about half of which are jammed into four jumbo warehouse buildings. It doesn’t take long to figure out that Noel runs his business like he ran his farming operation for many years: with a combination of long days, well-worn blue blue jeans, work boots and a genuine affection for hard work and a square deal. You get the feeling that when he locks up at night, Noel might just be happier riding home on an old Allis-Chalmers or John Deere than in some fancy car he could surely afford.

“The best thing we’ve got going, probably, is we’re farm-oriented,” he says, searching for a way to describe his business philosophy. “Or whatever you want to call it.”

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A sturdy 1936 Ford pickup waits for a new owner alongside
a 1958 Nash Metropolitan.

Indeed, the Noels — Russ and his wife Anita — still live on a farm and are not far removed from the days when they were full-time farmers. They opened Country Classics, today one of the nation’s largest collector car operations, 10 years ago with the idea of sort of splitting their time between farming and peddling old cars. That arrangement lasted a few years, but the car business, which started on the family’s Edwardsville farm, ballooned and became too big to handle as a part-time gig. Now they lease the farmland and run the car business full time. And it all started with Russ’s unlikely — almost accidental — purchase of a single beat-up 1957 Chevy about 14 years ago.

“I almost didn’t buy it because there was no backseat and I thought, ‘Well, this car isn’t original.’ All it had was a bench in the back,” Noel recalls. “But I bought it and took it home and parked it … and finally a guy said, ‘This might be a rare car.” It was a business coupe (or three-person utility coupe in Chevy vernacular). Well, I got it running, but it needed restoring … We wound up selling it right away and that kind of got me started … I started with that one car, you know, and just every time I’d sell a car, I’d buy two. Then I’d sell two and buy four, and I just kept going.

“When we opened up here, we had 40-some cars that we moved up here from the farm, and I told my wife that I’d like to get about 80 or 90. She said it’s crazy to have that many cars,” he adds with a laugh. “And it just really took off.”

Noel has made all this hay in the collector car business by dealing mostly in “everyman” driver-types and cars that need restorations before they’ll be winning any blue ribbons. His huge buildings are stocked with all makes and models — from 1920s Dodges to 1950s “Tri-Five” Chevys to 1980s Trans Ams. Almost all the cars still have solid bodies and plenty of restoration potential. Typical Country Classic customers are either looking for a fun collector car that they can drive without investing a ton of time or money, or enthusiasts seeking a car for a full-blown restoration.

Ironically, despite being sandwiched in a prime location between the historic “Mainstreet USA” route and a buzzing interstate, Noel says most of his buying customers are not walk-ins. Instead, word about the company has spread to the point where the vast majority of orders come in over the phone — many from people buying cars without even seeing them.

“I’d say we probably sell 70 percent or more out of state, and we ship a lot of cars overseas,” Noel says. “I guess the location is obviously good, because business has grown and we’ve got plenty of room … I could probably add on again, but at my age — I’ll be 65 — I probably need to think about slowing down. The wife says, ‘Oh we’ve got enough,’ but we just keep adding on.”

Most of the nicest cars at Country Classics are parked inside, squeezed together end to end. It takes several hours of weaving in between bumpers for a visitor to see them all. Many of the other cars relegated to the outdoors will require more TLC when they finally find a home — either that, or they’ll be parts cars for another project. Noel doesn’t play many favorites when shopping for cars to sell. If it’s an old car that he thinks somebody will want and that he can get at a decent price, chances are he’ll bring it back to Staunton and put it on the lot.

“I like them to be an antique, which is 25 years or more, so right now needs to be 1984 or older,” he said. “I used to go more into the ’20s, but they are not real good movers. Model A’s are still pretty good, but for us, really, I’d say anything mid-’20s on up to the mid-’80s.”

Noel says he tries to only buy cars that run, but they don’t all run when they get sold. It depends on how long they wait for a buyer. “In the buildings, if we sell one in the corner, then we’ll have to move (other cars) out, but some of these cars a guy will buy over the phone, and we’ll tell them, ‘Hey, it hasn’t run in a few years, and you’ll probably need to clean the gas tank,’ or whatever,” he says. “We tell ’em and the buyer is aware of it …

“Really, we don’t have a mechanic here. We just do some little things. If a gas tank is leaking, we’ll send it out and have it cleaned … And once in a while we’ll send a car out to have it painted or have the interior done if it’s a decent car and it’ll make it look better and sell faster.”

“We try not to spend anymore money on ’em than we have to, because the more you put in ’em, the more you have to get out of ’em … We’ve painted cars and a guy comes in and buys it and says, ‘Boy, I wish you hadn’t of painted it.’”

After a decade in the business, Noel has learned not to get too attached to any cars, or to ever give up on a sale. He trusts his own judgment when he goes on buying runs to car shows, auctions and estate sales, and he figures everything he brings home will move eventually.

“We just sold a ’55 Cadillac, and that car probably hasn’t run in 20 years, and it’s going overseas! It’s going to Aruba or someplace, and the guy paid $2,500 for the car, but he’s going to spend that much to get it there,” he said. “But hey, it’s a ’55 Cadillac, and somebody wanted it.”

Noel is quick to point out one of his keys to success has been the decision to take consignments and allow car owners to store their vehicles at the dealership for free until they sell.

It’s a low-pressure arrangement that has worked well for all concerned, kept the inventory overflowing and kept Noel from tying up even more money in cars himself. “I probably lost track, but maybe 30, 40 percent (of the inventory) is on consignment,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of good people bring us cars and we sell them for them. If a guy wants too much for his car, that’s the best way to get the most; let us sell it for you because we don’t have the money invested.

“We’ve offered free inside storage and we still do that yet. If you got a car and want us to sell it, we’ll try to buy it … But if you’re in no hurry and you don’t need the money, the best way is to let us sell it for you.”

And Noel doesn’t seem concerned with how long a car sits around waiting for a buyer. Tires can go flat, batteries can go bad, and the dust may collect, but Noel is nothing if not patient. “I generally don’t get too excited about it. Believe it or not, (the salesmen have been) selling cars that we’ve had since probably early 2001, and ’02 and ’03,” he says incredulously.

“If we have a car a long time, we’ll try to come down on the price a little, but there is somebody who wants every one of them here,” he adds with a laugh. “You just never know when.”

These days, Noel jokes about cutting back on his workload and his never-ending search for more cars to buy, but his travel schedule says otherwise. He figures he’ll be gone two out of every three weekends this summer, visiting various auctions and car events where good deals might turn up. It’s a formula that seems to work, and Noel doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to change.

“I guess I really do enjoy it — the traveling state to state,” he says. “Last week I was in Missouri buying cars, and next weekend I’ll be in Charlotte, N.C., buying cars, and I just came back here a little bit ago from Springfield, Ill., buying a car. I just travel around and get the cars and hopefully get a good bargain and sell ’em and make a little.

“It’s kind of challenging. The wife says I just like the part about going out and getting a car hopefully for less than it’s worth and selling it. She calls it ‘the kill,’” he adds with a chuckle.

“It really helps when you have such good people working for you. It really makes it nice when you can go away for the weekend … I’m gone pert near every other weekend. This weekend will be the first weekend I’ll be home in three weeks.”

Country Classics’ no-frills style and down-home approach still seem to be working during these tough economic times. Noel says business continues to be surprisingly good.

“The car business has not been too bad!” he insists. “You can’t tell that the economy is bad when you go to these auctions. They’re still selling pretty good. My theory is there is a lot more people out there that has $20,000 or less to spend, than there is $40,000 or $50,000 or more … Last month we had one of our best months of the year … I don’t know how the rest of the guys are doing, but we can’t complain.”

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