May 20, 2022

Botu Linum

The Car & Automotive Devotees

Historic marker erected at longtime used car dealership in St. Clair Shores

4 min read

Pictured is Van’s Used Cars as it looked in the 1950s.

Maurice Van Coillie stands in front of Van’s Used Cars, one of the oldest businesses in the city with the original owner still involved in its operations.

Photo by Deb Jacques


ST. CLAIR SHORES — Maurice Van Coillie has always loved getting old cars back on the road.

“It wasn’t that hard. What I would do after working in the field or farm work, I would putz with an old car, get it up and running,” he said. He’d sell the vehicle and start the process all over again, and he was so successful that he attracted the notice of authorities from the state.

“He says, ‘Young man, you’re buying and selling a lot of cars, aren’t you?’ He said, ‘You need a dealer license.’ I said, ‘Give me one,’” Van Coillie recalled. “I had my first dealer license in 1947 on the farm.”

About a year later, however, the Van Coillie family moved from their farm to St. Clair Shores. His father was a bricklayer, and with so much construction going on in the city, he had plenty of work.

“I worked with him a while doing that, and that wasn’t my bag,” said Van Coillie, now 96 years old.

He was still working on used cars in his spare time and drove by a piece of property on Little Mack Avenue at Harper Avenue that was owned by a local chiropractor, Dr. Earl Liss.

“I asked him if I could run it,” Van Coillie said. He rented the property and opened C&M Motor Sales with a partner at 23509 Little Mack Ave.

“I was there for a few years and got things cleaned up. Then Uncle Sam said, ‘I need you,’ and I played soldier for a little while,” he recalled.

Beginning in 1950, he was stationed in Germany, serving in the Army of Occupation following World War II. That’s when he got the nickname “Van.” After returning from the service in 1958, he asked Liss about renting the property once more.

“He said, ‘Why don’t you buy it? … I’ll make it easy on you,’” Van Coillie said. “I did wind up buying it, and I’ve been there ever since.

Van Coillie named that business Van’s Used Cars, as it’s been known ever since.

Kathy Campbell is a member of the St. Clair Shores Historical Commission, and she also rents commercial property from Van Coillie.

“There’s a lot of other businesses in the city who started in that era, but no one who is still operating at age 96,” she said. “I kind of felt that, when we were looking at places to honor, seeing that it’s still the original building … still in its original state, (and) he is still selling used cars,” that it would be a good spot in the city to honor with a historical marker.

The St. Clair Shores Historical Commission placed a historic marker at Van’s Used Cars Sept. 25.

Mayor Kip Walby tasked the Historical Commission with developing a historic marker program for the city in 2013 to highlight structures and places that played a significant role in the development of the city.

“We’re just trying to kind of record so people understand how St. Clair Shores developed and kind of spread outward, that these are the core businesses that have endured this long,” Campbell said.

Other markers are located at the Davis Block at 11 Mile Road and Harper Avenue; Richards Automotive at Nine Mile Road and Harper Avenue; Roy O’Brien Ford at Nine Mile Road and Greater Mack Avenue; St. Gertrude Church on Jefferson Avenue at L’Anse Street; Labadie Farm at Jefferson Avenue and 10 Mile Road; and Blossom Heath on Jefferson Avenue.

Van Coillie said his business’s longevity “was kind of in my blood.”

“I like dealing with people,” he said. “I didn’t become Bill Gates or Rockefeller, but I made a decent living, worked hard at it (and) made a lot of friends in the business. Customers became friends.”

He now rents the business to a man who bought his first car from Van Coillie at age 16, Eric Bowen.

“He paid for (the car by) cutting grass, delivering papers, and he kept bugging me for a job. I finally hired him, and now he’s my partner. Someday he’ll own the place,” Van Coillie said. “Some other businesspeople, they’re on the second- and third-generation, and the original is still here.”