How a childhood hobby became a life’s work became a dream fully realized.
Story by James Coats / Photography by Maggie Rae
I’ve always been interested in history and in vehicles, from a young age. As a young boy, when an airplane would fly over or a train would go past, I would immediately take notice. I spent many an afternoon playing on the tractors at the golf course where we lived, and I learned to drive in a three-wheeled Harley-Davidson golf cart. At age 6, I took my first airplane ride in a shiny silver Navion, and was immediately hooked by the view from above. At 15, I began hanging around our tiny airport in Marion, NC, where family friend Gene Padgett restored old cars and old airplanes. That summer, I did odd jobs for Gene in exchange for flying lessons, and made my first solo flight on my 16th birthday. Just a couple months later, I purchased my first car – a red 1965 Plymouth Sport Fury, which is still in our collection today. Coats Classic Cars was born in the afternoons after school, where I bought and sold cars alongside my good friend, car dealer Scott Huskins. Twenty two years later, things came full circle when Scott became one of our chauffeurs!
It doesn’t take long owning or having access to antique cars before you get asked to bring one out for a wedding. I chauffeured the first on my 18th birthday, in a borrowed 1930 Ford Model A. Immediately after high school, Coats Classic Cars became a classic car service shop in downtown Birmingham, [in what is] now the location of Regions Field. I continued my studies (history, naturally) at The University of Alabama at Birmingham, while chauffeuring weddings as a sideline. As so often happens with entrepreneurs, one day we looked up and this hobby had become a business. I had a decision to make! Family has always been a big part of our business, so in May 2005, with the help and advice of my father, I purchased one of Gene’s cars, our 1929 Hudson “Eleanor”, to begin building CCC into what it is today.
In those days, in addition to our own cars, we partnered with other local collectors to add to our selection. We bought and restored our white 1959 Jaguar “Caroline” in 2008; today, she is our most requested car. In 2012, I again went to the counsel of family (this time, my mother and stepfather) and purchased our first Rolls-Royce, 1951 Silver Wraith “Catherine”. This opened the floodgates of car collecting and expansion. Today we offer over thirty classic cars, including eleven Rolls-Royces, across the Southeast and Midwest, from collections in Birmingham and Huntsville; Jackson, MS; Kansas City; and the Western Carolinas. We have several more under restoration, which we perform right here in-house. My father fills in as a chauffeur for us still today, and my mother, a businesswoman herself, is always available to lend advice or a helping hand. My “better half” Kirsten expertly heads up our reservations office. Even my 16-year-old daughter has gotten involved, with her ‘own’ Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow “Abigail”!
In August 2019, I had the opportunity to fulfill a childhood dream and purchased a 1947 North American Navion – an identical make and model to that shiny silver airplane which made an unforgettable impression at age 6, and in which I learned to fly at 15. In doing so, we founded Coats Classic Wings, which provides classic aircraft for productions and photo shoots. Our particular Navion has a very interesting past, having been owned in the 1950s by national media sensation “The Flying Grandmother” Zaddie Bunker of Palm Springs, flown for many years as a transcontinental racer, and made an appearance in the film It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. As with our classic cars, our Navion fulfills my passion of using the history of yesterday to make unforgettable memories for today.
See you on the open road – or in the skies!