(Editor’s note: When someone mentions the Collier Collection, collector car enthusiasts automatically think of Miles Collier and the Revs Institute/Collier Collection in Naples, Florida. But the inaugural Atlanta Concours d’Elegance will showcase another Collier Collection, this one founded by a Georgia native son.)
‘My first car was given to me by an uncle. It was a ’36 Ford, and that’s the last Ford I’ve ever owned,” said James Collier, who was just turning 16 when his uncle gave him that car. Today, Collier is 79 and six cars from his collection will be featured October 8-9 at the inaugural Atlanta Concours d’Elegance at Chateau Elan.
Ranging from a 1925 coupe to a 1963 split-window Corvette, the cars from the Collier Collection that will be featured at the concours are all Chevrolets.
Those who have seen Collier’s entire collection of more than two dozen Chevrolets believe it to be among the best of its size and historic scope in the country. There are larger collections and collections that focus on Corvettes or Tri Fives or such, but Collier’s collection takes a more historic overview, including Chevrolets from the 1920s to the early ‘70s.
Adding significance to the collection is the fact that James Collier is African-American, the son of sharecroppers.
“Thank God for Reggie Jackson,” Collier said of the baseball Hall of Fame player and perhaps the best-known black car collector in the country. But, Collier said, you don’t have to be rich or famous to be a car collector, and that’s a message he tries to share with young people.
“I might have more impact on kids down here,” Collier continued. “They think you have to a superstar, but when they see a common man like me (with a car collection), I hope it has an impact on them.
“They don’t have to be a Reggie Jackson to get into the collector car field, and it’s a good field to get in. (Collector) cars are constantly going up in value and you get to enjoy them and your money is growing at the same time,” Collier said. “If you have a hobby in golf or fishing, your new boat isn’t going to be worth as much in five years and it’s the same with your golf clubs. But your car will go up in value.”
Collier’s second car was a 1949 Chevrolet he bought and drove throughout college. “That’s the car I met my wife in,” he said. “I kept that car for quite a few years, until I graduated.”
But that car was not the first in what would become the Collier Collection. “It had all those memories, but I didn’t have the value of automobiles as I have now,” Collier said, “and I also didn’t have any money. It had to go.”
And so did James Collier, off to military service.
After his service, and armed with a degree in mathematics, Collier taught eighth-grade math for six months before starting a career at Western Electric and AT&T in 1965.
“I love machinery,” Collier said. “I was born and reared on the farm. I came from the mule era to the machine era of the tractor and the car. It reduced the amount of work we had to do.
“Coming from the animal era to the machine era, I developed a knowledge early on that technology was going to take over the world and keep making improvements. And this today is not even the tip of the iceberg of what technology is going to do for the world.”
Collier was in his mid-30s when he started collecting cars. His first was a 1966 Corvette, at the time nearly a decade-old car he bought with money his mother-in-law had given James and Ella Collier to put toward a car for their son, who was just turning 15.
It would be a year or so before their son was old enough to drive, and James Collier was eager to start collecting cars, both as an investment and an enjoyment.
“I believed that cars were going up in value,” he explained, adding that cars are an investment that doesn’t just sit in the bank, but you get to use them, to enjoy them while their value was growing.
“If I had some money I wasn’t using, I believed I should put it in cars rather than put it in the bank. It profited me two-fold: I could enjoy the cars and the value would increase. In the bank, I couldn’t enjoy the money at all.”
But why did he collect Chevrolets?
“They were lower priced compared to other cars, and I like General Motors products,” he said. There also was the availability of parts for repairs and maintenance and eventually for restoration.
“You can get a Chevrolet fixed almost anywhere if you break down, and the parts are interchangeable,” he added, noting that while a Windsor and Cleveland Ford V8 might have specialized parts, Chevy 350 V8s have a common water pump.
“I don’t know anything about new cars,” Collier admitted, but, “in my opinion, the 350 engine is the best engine made considering cost and considering the service you get out of it.”
Collier said his car collection grew “as fast as I could get the money” to add cars.
His favorites are the 1932 and 1958 Chevrolets, because “they have more chrome on them than any other years and I like chrome.”
He said he also likes ’58 Chevrolets from an engineering standpoint. “The ’58 Chevrolet has a frame all of its own. It’s not a carryover car. It’s a brand new car and it didn’t last but one year.”
Collier’s collection includes three 1972 Chevrolet pickup trucks. “That body style lasted for four years, 1969-72. Those are the last Chevrolet and GMC trucks with collector values, and the ’71 and ’72 have greater value than the ’69 and ’70 because they have power disc front brakes.”
At the Atlanta concours, the Colliers will show a 1925 Chevrolet coupe, a trio of 1932 models — a roadster, phaeton and landau — a 1959 Impala four-speed convertible and the ’63 split-window Corvette.
Collier said that now that he’s approaching 80, he and his wife usually take one of their cars to shows only three or four times a year. The Atlanta concours will be the first time they’ve shown so many cars, and over the course of two full days.
But he wants people, especially young people, to see that a common man can become a car collector.
Speaking of his collection, it does not include that ’49 Chevy he bought for college. After returning from the military and starting work and a family, he couldn’t afford to reacquire the car. Later, however, he did find the steering wheel from a ’49 Chevrolet and it hangs on his wall at home as a reminder of the car and what it meant to him.
Oh, and as far as that ’36 Ford “gift” from his uncle, the car that seemed to sour Collier on Fords, perhaps it really wasn’t the car’s fault: “If the car was any good,” he said, laughing through his words, “he wouldn’t have given it to me in the first place.”