By Edward Martin
The dazzling restored cars and what’s billed as the world’s largest collection of road memorabilia that’ll cross the auction block in northwest North Carolina in late June might instead have been motorcycles. But Eddie Vannoy’s dad feared his son would break his neck on a fast two-wheeler.
“When I was 16 or so, I saved up $400 or $500 and was going to buy me a Yamaha as a way to get around,” says Vannoy, 71, CEO of Jefferson-based James R. Vannoy & Sons Construction Co. “Pop said, ‘You’re not buying that motorcycle, you might get hurt. So, I’m going to give you our 1959 Ford.’ Within two weeks, I had the fender skirts off, the back end jacked up, had put a four-barreled carburetor on it and was ready to cruise.”
More than 50 years later, his enthusiasm for hot cars still shows traces of a teenage hotrodder. Vannoy’s collection of more than 80 cars, many that define the Muscle Car genre, plus thousands of scale models, vintage gas pumps, bicycles and other vehicles should easily surpass more than $10 million at the sale.
The June 26-30 sale will be conducted by Walworth, Wisc.-based Mecum Auctions, which bills itself as the world’s largest seller of collector cars. NBC Sports is expected to show auction highlights at a later date.
Over the years, EddieVannoy and brother Mark have built the business their father created into one of North Carolina’s largest construction companies, building more Lowe’s home-improvement stores than any other contractor. Its annual revenue has topped $500 million with an emphasis on commercial and health care building. Eddie Vannoy found time, however, to pursue a dream that began before he took the wheel.
“When I was 14 or 15, I was working at an Esso service station on Saturdays, cleaning up cars, and somebody said they had a 1948 Chevrolet,” he says. “I gave them something like $75 or $100 for it, and had to get somebody to drive it home for me. I took it out on the farm where we lived, and drove it around in the fields. That’s where I learned to drive.”
Gradually, Vannoy accumulated more cars, including a 1955 Chevrolet, now one of the most collectible cars of that era. It originally retailed for $2,200 but restorations today exceed $50,000. By the time he completed a business administration degree at East Carolina University in the 1970s, the Pony Car and Muscle Car era was full bore. Ford’s Mustang and Chevrolet’s Camaro were joined by medium-sized cars like Pontiac GTOs and Plymouths, often stripped models with huge, pavement-melting V-8 engines. Vannoy’s collection gradually grew.
“I liked them all, but I had one 1969 Camaro that was featured in lots of car magazines,” he says. The car was customized by Kyle Tucker, a Detroit-based mechanic with a national reputation. After buying the car from him, Vannoy convinced Tucker to move to North Carolina. His Detroit Speed Inc., in Mooresville employs more than 50, restoring muscle cars and supplying parts for them. “Some of his cars have sold for $1 million, $1.5 million or more,” Vannoy says. “He builds them for race drivers and movie stars.”
Vannoy’s cars and tens of thousands of pieces of road gear such as early car-dealership signs represent more than the business acumen that has helped grow Vannoy Construction into one of the state’s largest contractors. His interest in cars and road memorabilia is practically genetic – nearby Wilkes County, for example, became infamous for its moonshine trade and the souped-up cars runners used to evade the law.
“I’ve been all over the country looking for [cars],” he says, chasing down leads. “I went somewhere and bought everything myself. I’ve never bought a piece of anything off the Internet. I did a lot of traveling there for several years.”
David Mecum, the auction company’s road-art manager, says “You don’t put something like this together overnight. It took him 30 years and his eye for detail is amazing.”
Now, Vannoy and the curators of his private collection – it’s housed mainly in a 40,000-square-foot building in Jefferson – take the cars out for periodic spins to keep them running well, though usually not far. Low mileage is a prime selling point at auctions.
Collectively, Vannoy’s cars and road gear paint a chapter in automotive history unlikely to be repeated. Sandwiched between post-World War II euphoria in which cars ballooned in size, with huge fins and acres of chrome, then the austere letdown of gasoline shortages and environmental concerns in the late 1970s, the Muscle Car era was the short-lived heyday of horsepower.
Two of Vannoy’s cars, a 1969 Dodge Daytona and 1970 Plymouth Super Bird, models that often top $250,000 in auctions, were developed specifically for NASCAR racing, with massive, rear stabilizing wings and needle-sharp noses. They still hold race speed records 50 years later. Other cars in the collection feature crazy striping and wild paint such as the 1971 Plymouth Cuda’s “Curious Yellow,” “Sassy Grass Green” and “Vitamin C Orange.”
Overall, Vannoy expects the cars to bring $75,000 to $250,000 or more each. “You get three or four people bidding and they can go up pretty fast,” he says.
Why sell? Experts at Mecum and elsewhere say Vannoy’s collections typify the investment market for automobiles and related items.
Hagerty Insurance Co., a Michigan-based insurer of collector cars, says models from the 1970s and 1980s have shown strength, particularly with younger collectors who value them for their drivability – not to mention lower initial cost. Vintage pickup trucks are now strong. Muscle Cars like Vannoy’s fall in a middle ground for investors, with certain low-VIN – vehicle identification numbers – cars like the Dodge Daytona soaring.
For Eddie Vannoy, the auction is more than cashing in on an investment strategy. His family – wife, son, daughter, seven grandchildren – don’t share his passion for cars. He’ll keep a half-dozen, he says, to drive on weekends. His daily drive now is a Cadillac Escalade.
So, he will bite his tongue and watch them go. The cars will be offered with “no reserve,” auction talk for no minimum bid. Bidders will have to pay for the right to raise their hands. There’s a $150 registration fee.
“I told the guys at Mecum,” Vannoy says, “that I may have the worst case of seller’s remorse there’s ever been.”
Photos courtesy of Eddie Vannoy