What would happen if a car dealership closed, just closed, and sat untouched for three decades? In the showroom, brochure racks would still be filled with colorful materials showing the latest models, body styles, and colors for cars that were new when Jimmy Carter was in the White House. The parts department would still be stocked with water pumps, distributor caps and brake shoes. And, of course, there would be row upon row of used cars out on the lot.
Welcome to Collier Motors in the tiny, rural town Pikeville, North Carolina. Owner Robert Collier is the third-generation owner of a dealership that was begun by his grandfather more than 100 years ago. His grandfather opened the dealership early in the last century as an outlet for Whippet, Studebaker, and Willys Overland vehicles. Collier’s father converted the dealership to sell and service Nash and Rambler automobiles, which Robert Collier took over and owns to this day.
Hundreds of vehicles pass by the former dealership every day, the occupants never knowing what relics reside behind the metal fence and dense vegetation. Yet a walk of less than 50 feet through those trees reveals a strange combination of a time-capsule car dealership and Jurassic Park.
“I was a Rambler and American Motors dealership since the 1950s,” said Robert Collier, 80, who along with his son Rob, still operates the former dealership. “But when American Motors was purchased by the French, I just closed down. “I wasn’t going to sell none of them Renaults.” American Motors Corporation was partially purchased by the French owned Renault company in 1979.
He installed an eight-foot-tall cyclone fence around the property and locked the gate, but continues to fiddle with his Ramblers to this day. Initially his old customers brought their Ramblers for him to repair, but as those cars got older and were taken off the road, his business declined.
He continued to work on his Matadors, Rebels, Marlins, and Javelins, but father and son also started to collect significant American Motors automobiles. They began to search out and purchase the rare two-seater AMX muscle cars.
Today the Colliers probably own a dozen examples, including two very low mileage examples in excellent condition that are still sitting in the one-time showroom. Others are rusting and rotting into the ground.
Probably the most interesting AMX in the Collier collection once belonged to the late Arizona senator Barry Goldwater. According to Collier, Goldwater bought the bright red coupe new for about $5,000, “But he invested at least another hundred thousand dollars in accessories and special equipment,” he said.
Goldwater had a number of hobbies—ham radio, American Indian kachina dolls, photography, and UFO studies—but he also was a car buff and enjoyed modifying his AMX. Likely through his government and armed services connections, Goldwater had several aircraft gauges installed in the dashboard, including an altimeter. He also installed Recaro driving seats and a custom steering wheel.
Displayed across the trunk deck are decals signifying all the states he had driven his AMX through during his ownership. He apparently also drove the car throughout Europe, which was documented in a three-page summary in his autobiography. Also displayed on the car’s rear license tag was his ham radio frequency number.
When Goldwater died in 1998, Collier contacted the family about purchasing the senator’s car. After a short negotiation, a deal was finalized with Goldwater’s son.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that since the desirable AMX has been transported from the arid Arizona climate to the humidity of North Carolina, it has been sitting outside in a back lot at Collier’s facility and has begun rusting away.
Parked randomly throughout the property are a number of Javelins, including several Mark Donohue editions that commemorated his winning of the 1971 SCCA Trans-Am Championship.
Collier said he has at least 250 used cars still parked on his property.
Although they were once probably parked on gravel or grass, after 30 years of not cutting the lawn, those cars are now parked in a mature forest. All sorts of AMC sedans, station wagons, and convertibles (some with trees actually growing through the fabric roof ) are littered in rows throughout the several acre lot. However, the used car lot is not only comprised of AMC products, but also random brands such as Chevrolets, Fords, Chryslers, Cadillacs, and even Mercedes-Benzes.
“I think I have about two hundred fifty cars in the lot, but I’d have to count the titles to be sure,” said Collier. With all the trees and plant growth around the cars, it more resembles a metallic jungle than a proper car lot.
Probably the most valuable single cars on the property are the collection of Nash-Healeys that the Colliers have assembled. Nash-Healey sports cars were manufactured between 1951 and 1954 and created out of a partnership between the Nash Motor Company—the American company, which supplied the special multi-carb high-performance engine and drivetrain—and Donald Healey—the British sports car builder who supplied the chassis, suspension, and technical expertise. The two-seater bodies were manufactured in Italy.
The cars were an odd combination of components that seemed to work better than anyone imagined. The cars performed well on the racetrack and finished as high as third place at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1952. But because components for the car came from three places—Nash in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Healey in Warwick, England, and the bodies from Turin, Italy—the cars were expensive for the day. The cars cost nearly $6,500, which in the early 1950s made it one of the most expensive sports car of the day.
Only 507 cars were built over its three-year production life. But the car has a loyal following among collectors today. Th e renowned Walnut Creek, California, car collector, the late Jacques “Frenchy” Harguindeguy, who owned a fleet of classics including the Best in Show Pebble Beach 1936 Delehaye roadster, considered his Nash-Healey one of the best cars ever built and chose to drive it over all his other priceless cars.
The Colliers have four Nash-Healeys scattered around the former dealership.
The good news is that two of the rare cars are parked in what was formerly the service department. The bad news is that the other two are parked outside in the elements.
One particularly disturbing example is a Nash-Healey Le Mans Coupe, a stylish hardtop that was built to commemorate the brand’s racing successes.
When I walked up to Collier’s coupe, the door was ajar and the outside was indeed inside. Moss, mold, and other organic materials were equally spread on both the outside and inside of this once magnificent car. The car’s once red and black body was totally covered in rust, and cancer had become firmly entrenched within the car’s extremities.
What I couldn’t believe was what Collier said next.
“We bought that car on the West Coast right after it won at Pebble Beach,” he said. I was dumbstruck. This rusted hulk, which if restored would require a truckload of money and years of time, had been a gleaming, polished, and perfect example once displayed at the most revered Concours d’Elegance in the world.
Out of respect for the car’s history, I walked back to the Nash-Healey and pushed the door shut. But it sprung back open.
Robert Collier is an interesting fellow. He was obviously a competent businessman who ran the family dealership in the 1950s when he was in his 20s; he is mechanically astute, and he knows the value of vintage cars and parts.
But he seems to have no sense of preservation. He owns significant cars, but instead of protecting the cars, and therefore his investments, they are put out to pasture where their conditions rapidly deteriorate.
Hoping to save some of the cars, I asked if any were for sale. “Sure, everything is for sale,” he said.
I asked about the Nash-Healey Le Mans Coupe, which had been rusting terribly outside for decades. “Yup, I’ll sell it.”
“How much are you asking,” I asked. “Well,” he said, “I’d have to think about that. But that car won at Pebble Beach, and they sell for at least two hundred thousand dollars.”
There was nothing left for me to say. I shook his hand and thanked him for allowing me to see his facility. I’ve been haunted about the dilemma of his cars ever since.
And at this very moment, all of them are still sitting there, rusting into the ground…
This amazing tale first appeared in Tom Cotter’s The Corvette in the Barn, but has been reprinted here with permission for your enjoyment. Pick up your own copy of the book on Motorbooks or Amazon and make sure you submit your own find stories because the best one is going to make it into Tom’s next book!