‘Mr. Van’, America’s oldest active car dealer, passes away at 98
For longer than anyone can remember, Maurice VanCoillie had been selling cars in the Detroit area. In fact, he was such an institution there that in 2021, the city of St. Clair Shores, Mich., placed a historical marker at his dealership.
But on July 18, VanCoillie, affectionately known to most everyone as “Mr. Van,” passed away at the age of 98, just two months after his wife of more than 60 years, Marge, lost her brief battle with cancer and a month after Thomas, the youngest of his six children, died unexpectedly.
“They said he had congestive heart failure,” said Joe Kuhta, a close friend of VanCoillie. “I call it dying of a broken heart.”
VanCoillie was believed to be the oldest licensed car dealer in the U.S., and was actively working at Van’s Used Cars until his last two months.
“He was there every day,” said Annette Chapman, executive director of the Michigan Independent Dealers Association. “I’d go visit him and he’d be tinkering with some cars, making sure everything was taken care of.
“He was part of the association since the beginning. He never missed board meetings. Just before he went into assisted living, I called him and said, ‘Hey, we’re having a meeting,’ and he said, ‘I don’t think I can make it this time.’ You could just hear it in his voice how hard that was for him.”
VanCoillie, along with auto auction pioneer Sam Lafata and others, founded the Detroit and Michigan IADAs. He was a past president of MIADA and had been the association’s State Quality Dealer, and he served on the MIADA board until his death.
“He was the grandfather of all independent dealer associations,” said Kuhta, a retired longtime executive for GWC Warranty. “He and that group of dealers were among the foundation for all the independent dealers associations throughout the nation. They thought it was important for dealers to have representation in dealing with government at the local and state level, so they formed the association and led the way.
“Sam and Van were iconic. That’s a big word. There aren’t too many iconic anything. But I put Sam and Van in that category as founders and leaders in the used-car industry in Detroit and in Michigan.”
But beyond his legacy with the associations, VanCoillie had an immense impact on generations of independent dealers in Michigan, serving as a mentor and sharing the wisdom built up in more than 75 years as a licensed dealer.
Ray Campise of Certified Motors in St. Clair Shores, MIADA’s current chairman and a fellow past president, worked “right down the street” from VanCoillie for almost 20 years.
“He was available to people,” Campise said. “And there was a lot of knowledge there. When a man stops trying to learn, it’s over for him. So, there was a lot I learned from him, and he was always looking to learn as he went on.
“He was a hard-working man. Started very young and was self-made. Created a dynasty for himself. Always had a positive attitude and a great smile. He was very fair. He loved the car business.”
Indeed, the car business was VanCoillie’s life for what seems like forever. He had already been selling cars on his own by 1947, when at 22 years old he got his first dealer license.
His career was paused when he served in the Army following World War II, but it really got going in 1958, when he opened Van’s Auto Sales at its current location. Since then, he’s sold countless cars, won a seemingly endless stream of awards and accolades — including a special dealer license plate from the state honoring his spotless compliance record — and made legions of friends.
“Three or four years ago, Mr. Van invited me over with another dealer he was mentoring — he was a great mentor to all of us, always helping everybody — and he took us out in his offshore boat, driving himself at 70 miles an hour,” recalled current MIADA president Otto Hahne of City of Cars in Troy, Mich.
“I never thought I’d be driven around like that by a gentleman that old. But he was so on top of it, sharp as a tack — and he loved to talk cars. Anything and everything that had to do with a motor, Mr. Van liked.”
Especially Chryslers. VanCoillie was a noted collector of the vehicles, winning numerous awards at car shows and earning recognition from the Chrysler Corporation itself. Kuhta said he recalled VanCoillie donating some of his Chryslers to the company for display in its museum.
Hahne said VanCoillie had been a drag racer in his younger days, driving Chryslers, of course.
He was also the life of any party he attended.
“He was always the last dancer left on the dance floor at any of our association functions,” Chapman said. “He and his wife were always the last ones out there.”
The VanCoillies loved dancing so much they often hosted “old-fashioned dinner dances” at the Blossom Heath Inn, a former roadhouse that served as a speakeasy during the prohibition era — “where back in the day they’d transport Canadian liquor across when the river would freeze,” Kuhta said.
“The room hosted many ballroom-type singers and we’d have dinner dances there,” he said. “Van would always organize those. He’d get a couple hundred people at those events, and he was always out on the dance floor, dancing away with all the participants.”
Those sorts of memories are many among Michigan dealers. But what Campise said he’ll remember most is VanCoillie’s honesty, honor and integrity.
“You could count on him,” Campise said. “His word was his bond. Very seldom would he ever collect a deposit — a handshake and your word was what he ran on. You don’t get that anymore. It’s great to have that integrity.
“He’ll be greatly missed, by all dealers and MIADA.”