The showroom at Southern Classic Cars is probably best visited wearing a pair of thick boots or waders.
“Because they’re up to their necks in you know what,” said Cyndi Savage, who photographs the cars for promotional materials.
Savage was talking about the group that congregates there most days around noon to talk about the things old men talk about: how cars and trucks used to be made better, the way the country is slipping into the toilet or may be there already, and whether blondes or redheads are better or if it even matters at all.
On a recent Friday, discussion centered on the gold-plated 1928 Ford Model A that arrived last month and whether guns or people are the real problem.
It’s like a barbershop with better scenery.
Hank Knapfel, a regular at the gatherings, has called Wake Forest home for more than a decade after retiring on Long Island. There’s also a local doctor whose car collection numbers in the dozens, several people who have spent decades in and around Wake Forest, and a high school kid who showed up one day and keeps coming back.
“There are all types of people from all walks of life,” Knapfel said. “You could have a millionaire walk in, but you would never know. A car guy is a car guy.”
Taking care of business
It seems as if most of the cars in the showroom were ripped from old movie posters. A couple of the 1950s Chevy Bel Airs would look perfectly at home on the set of “Happy Days” or “Mad Men.” In one corner sits a DeLorean DMC-12, the unwieldy sports car with gull-wing doors that was made famous by “Back to the Future.” A few steps away is a Volkswagen Vanagon plucked from an old hippie’s dream.
Prices range from a few thousand dollars to six figures.
Owner Charlie Kaleel is a longtime North Carolinian who lived in Raleigh most of his life until heading a few miles north to Wake Forest a couple of years ago. In 2004, he bought Wake Forest Classic Cars and renamed it to appeal to a broader market. In the first year, business grew more than 50 percent, and he expanded to a larger building at 417 Brooks St. in 2007.
The showroom will fit 63 cars and usually is almost full. A few are owned by Kaleel, but most he is selling for other people on consigment. Five to 10 sell each month.
The ability to buy a cool old car, drive it for a few years and then sell it for more is what first attracted Kaleel more than 40 years ago.
“I started buying classic cars when I realized how much money I was losing on new cars every few years,” he said of the hobby that started in 1970. “If you buy smart, you can make money, and at the worst you break even.”
There are two important tricks to the business, he said: Buying cars that are already in good condition instead of dumping time and money into a restoration, and guessing what type of cars people are going to want and miss most at any given time.
There will always be new old people who are nostalgic for the way things were, wanting cars they couldn’t afford when they were young or looking for relics from their youth.
The 1928 Ford Model A that arrived last month is in better condition than when it was owned by a Greensboro doctor who bought it new four score and five years ago. The current owner wanted to make something one-of-a-kind, the type of thing that could end up in Jay Leno’s massive collection of classic and exotic cars. As a leatherback sedan, it was rare to start, and Kaleel said the gold finishing puts it over the top. The asking price is $55,500, and time will determine how wise it was to invest in the renovation.
“Someone will end up with a great Model A,” Kaleel said. “It’s a great job and a great business to be in. That car is a reminder why. What makes it great is the people you meet, the random experiences you have and getting to know people from all over the world.”
Business models for many companies have turned upside down, with online sales eclipsing those in-store. Kaleel saw that change take full effect a few years ago. He used eBay Motors to facilitate about 95 percent of his business at the peak, but business has shifted back in favor of the brick-and-mortar operations.
The reason is repeat customers – many from far-flung places such as Germany and Texas – who boast prolific collections.
What brings people back is that Kaleel makes a point of highlighting problems with cars he sells, and he tries to help people who need it, he said.
Since his wife died after a battle with cancer, he has helped widows in the community get what their husbands’ cars are worth.
“He’s really a great guy, an honest person, and people appreciate that,” said Knapfel, the New York transplant.
Daniel Kinney, a 17-year-old senior at Sanderson High School, talked his father into taking him to look at the cars a few years ago. It wasn’t long before he started working there every Friday, cleaning up around the building and helping out around the showroom.
He plans to attend Appalachian State University or Campbell University this fall, and he hopes to one day have a career that will let him work around cars and people.
“You look at Charlie, and he loves his job,” Kinney said. “Maybe he’s not getting rich, but he has more than enough to get by, and he found a way to make money doing what he loves. That’s what I want to do. I learned that here.”