James Collier has always been really good at math. And as a young man, he thought he would try his hand at teaching.
“What I learned is that it wasn’t for me,” said the 82-year-old Atlantan with a wry chuckle.
However, Collier, who quickly left the eight-grade classroom and went on to have a successful career at AT&T, has found another way to teach.
People from all over the world seek him out for his seemingly endless knowledge of Chevrolet automobiles.
“He is an encyclopedia for Chevrolets,” said Aaron Spaulding, an advisor with the Atlanta Concours d’Elegance. “It’s uncanny how much he knows.”
Collier’s assemblage of Chevrolets is considered by many in the car collector world to be the best of its kind, not so much for quantity, but rather for the quality of his vehicles. Many of the more than one dozen vehicles have taken first-place awards from the country’s top auto shows.
Five of Collier’s cars will be featured at the 2019 Atlanta Concours d’Elegance on Oct. 19-20 at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta.
The event will showcase some of the most rare and interesting cars from all over the globe, many seldom seen by the public.
Collier’s cars range from rare 1932 convertibles to fully-loaded 1960s Corvettes to Collier’s favorite, the 1958 Impala.
“It’s just a beautiful car. It’s an original one-year car,” he said. “They made the ‘58 and jumped to a totally new car in ‘59, and they stayed [with that design] for two years.”
Collier’s wife, Ella, an antiques collector in her own right, follows her husband to car shows and said she really enjoys the events.
“It’s really about the people you meet,” she said. “The experiences they’ve had and the places they’ve been. People have fantastic stories.”
Her husband’s story is nothing short of fantastic, too.
He was born one of 10 children in a family of sharecroppers from a tiny town in south Georgia.
“I started collecting cars because the interest was there from my childhood,” said Collier, recalling his days on that south Georgia farm as he watched over time the family mules being replaced by machines. “I love machinery and things like that. [That love] evolved over to cars when I got old enough to own one.”
Collier purchased his first collector car in 1975.
“The first car that I thought was going to be a collector car was the ‘71 Monte Carlo,” he said. “And from there I grew to the cars I have now.” He still owns that car.
Collier said there are three reasons he started collecting Chevrolets instead of other brands.
“Price. Price of repair. Price of resale,” he said. “I think for those three things Chevrolet’s’s got the best market.”
He said he finds cars through books, the Internet, and by word of mouth.
“I have friends who are scattered all over various places and when they see something they know I’m interested in — and it’s for sale — then they call,” he said.
Collier’s collection also stands apart at high-quality car shows because he is one of a few but growing number of African-American classic car collectors.
“Mr. Collier is a very rare person,” said Spaulding. “If you put the term African American aside for a second, he’s one of the foremost Chevrolet collectors in this part of the country. His cars are very rare and consistent in terms of quality and rank.”
Collier said he hopes that his passion for collecting cars will inspire younger people — especially young African Americans — to take up the hobby.
“That’s really what I want to do. I wanted to satisfy my own, shall I say ego, or whatever you want to call it,” he said. “But I also thought I had a responsibility to the underprivileged people to let them know that someone other than millionaires can enjoy this hobby as well.”
When asked if there was a car out there that he wants but doesn’t have, Collier said he’d love to own a Duesenberg. But some Duesenbergs models now command millions of dollars.
“I don’t think I’ll get one of those,” he said. “The main thing I like about the Duesenberg is there’s a sound coming from the big engine that no other car has. It sounds like a freight train to me.”
Collier then took a reporter on a quick tour of his garage, pointing out the unique characteristics and histories of his vehicles.
“Look at these rubber plugs,” he said, pointing to the stoppers in the engine bay of a white ‘58 Impala. “You see how there’s a small ring of glue around them? That would cost you points at a show.”
He’s still teaching.
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