(Editor’s note: The following was submitted on behalf of the children of Louis and Hermien Coetzer, a couple who died earlier this year in an off-roading accident in the mountains of South Africa. Much of the Coetzer Collection is being offered at auction December 5.)
The late Louis Coetzer’s life was driven by two passions, an abiding devotion to family and an ardent love of automotive design.
And so finely were those passions balanced that the astonishing private collection of some 350 classic cars amassed over decades by “Uncle Louis,” as he was known, has become an inexorable part of Coetzer family lore for the three children still mourning their parents’ untimely passing earlier this year.
Lida van der Merwe, daughter of “Uncle Louis” and Hermien, says vehicles of all shapes and sizes may not sound like the stuff of dreams to most young children, but for her, her brother Jan Coetzer and their sister Hermie Matthysen, in their formative years they held as much – if not more – magic than a dozen action figures or Barbie dolls.
“Our father is known as one of the most knowledgeable and prolific private automotive collectors in the world, especially when it comes to Mercedes-Benzes,” she said, “but what isn’t widely known is how in so many ways the story of our family is also a love story of wheels and of engines.
“If a book was ever written about the famous Uncle Louis’ car collection, Chapter One would start in the 1940s and detail a young boy’s passion for hub caps and Dinky toys, but Chapter Two would recount the first meeting between an 18-year-old boy and a 14-year-old girl; about how they knew immediately they were soulmates and how they shared their joy of family and cars for the 53 years they spent together.”
Hermie takes up the story: “Part of loving our father was accepting his love of cars, so it’s no great surprise, looking back, that when the time came for our mother to learn to drive Dad would have been at the head of the queue to teach her.
“And teach her he did – except it wasn’t in a car, and it wasn’t on a road. Our mother delighted for years in regaling the kids with tales of her first adventures behind a wheel, which took place on Dad’s family farm with her riding high on a large tractor – with trailer hitched behind!”
Lida says the Coetzer children were raised in a traditional household governed by faith and family values, with the one slight twist being their father’s burgeoning collection of cars which started in one barn and then overflowed into two barns, and then three, and then more.
“Mom and Dad shared a lifelong passion for cars and went to countless car shows. They did everything together and also got to travel a lot. Dad was the head of the household, but if Mom really wanted something or wanted something done a certain way, our Dad would make it happen.”
Lida says she will always be thankful for the patience their father showed throughout his life, even concerning his cherished cars.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been as proud as the 6-year-old girl whose father allowed her to ‘change’ her first flat tire when the whole family was stuck at the side of the road and it would have been far quicker to do it alone.”
Jan adds that their father loved telling the story of when, as a pre-schooler, Jan decided to help wash a Cadillac – with a steel wool pot scourer.
“Dad didn’t react negatively at all when he noticed; he simply handed me a soft cloth and suggested I try that instead. Even though the car had to be resprayed, Dad maintained that he couldn’t get angry at me because I had good intentions.”
Lida says their father’s legendary patience was responsible for what was quite possibly the most protracted car acquisition in motoring history.
“There was an uncle with an old Chev Impala who lived on a farm we often drove past when I was young. The first time our father saw the Chev he offered to buy it, but the uncle said no. A few months later he stopped by the farm and repeated the offer, which was turned down again.
“During the course of the next eight years, he’d visit the uncle from time to time to ask whether he could buy the Chev. He was turned down every time except the last; in the eighth year he came home with the car.”
Hermie recalls that even commonplace activities like school pickups or family holidays became adventures as a child of Uncle Louis.
“We never knew with which car Dad would fetch us from school. Sometimes you’d walk slowly down the row and study each car and number plate, then go back and look at each driver, until you found the right one.
“And sometimes we’d go on holiday in one car but end up driving back in two, because on our travels he’d have fallen in love with another one, or found a great deal.”
Lida says it was not easy deciding what to do with their parents’ automotive legacy.
“There are so many memories attached to the cars; wonderful family time spent with both our parents in the vehicles, but we realized that we won’t lose the memories just because we don’t have the physical cars anymore.
“It’s best for so many of Dad’s beloved cars to move to new owners who share his passion to carry on the legacy; the preserving of these beautiful classics we are so fortunate to still have in our midst.
“If the cars were left to stand, they’d deteriorate and if you knew our father you’d know this would have saddened him.
“Dad liked to say ‘nowhere is too far, if you go by car.’. It would make him happy to see a passionate new generation driving far in his cars.”
— The Coetzer family
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