By JOE GUY COLLIER
Truett Cathy, the 87-year-old founder and chairman of Chick-fil-A, raised the door on a steel-sided barn and shuffled outside, revealing a massive red fire truck parked in the driveway.
“Crank it up,” he told one of his assistants, creating a whirring, blaring scene of lights and sirens on this farm south of Atlanta.
Cathy cannot fully explain why he bought a used Gwinnett County fire truck. It just caught his fancy, he said.
“I do a lot of things now, being 87, that I wished I could do when I was a kid,” Cathy said.
A devout Christian who keeps his stores closed on Sunday, Cathy is well-known for his love of God, family and the chicken sandwich. He’s built privately owned Chick-fil-A, with about 1,400 outlets, into one of the 20 largest U.S. restaurant chains.
But Cathy has another passion: automobiles. Over the past 30 years, he’s amassed more than 70 vehicles in a collection that’s both classic and quirky.
He has a 1916 Model T, 1949 Buick Series 50 Super and 1960 Cadillac Eldorado. He also has three fire trucks, three limousines, a race car from the movie “Days of Thunder” and the Batmobile from “Batman Returns.”
He plans to travel to Auburn, Ind., this Labor Day weekend for one of the nation’s largest classic car auctions and shows. The event, hosted by Kruse International, has become an annual pilgrimage for Cathy.
Cathy has a reputation for being frugal. Raised in public housing in the Great Depression with six siblings, he says his childhood taught him to watch his money closely.
He and his wife, Jeannette, have lived in the same house for 50 years. They still clip coupons from the Sunday paper.
He admits, though, he has a penchant for automobiles.
“I say it’s kind of a disease you get, buying cars that you never expect to ride in, just look at,” Cathy said.
George Glaze, a Jonesboro attorney, has been making the trip with Cathy to the Auburn auction for more than a decade.
Cathy and Glaze used to drive, taking a trailer with them to haul back the cars they bought. Age and a couple of flat tires convinced them to start flying.
Cathy is partial to cars built during his childhood, Glaze said. And he’s always on the lookout for a deal, he said.
“He generally does not buy anything unless he feels that it’s a good bargain,” Glaze said. “He haggles. …He’s very disappointed if they take his first offer.”
The “disease,” as Cathy calls it, began in 1971. Cathy wanted to buy a car to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his restaurant, the Dwarf Grill in Hapeville. He bought a 1946 Ford to commemorate the event. He’s since built an impressive collection, adding vehicles through auctions and private sales.
Cathy takes almost daily walks through the cars and trucks, kept in secure metal barns on a farm south of Atlanta and the lobby of the Chick-fil-A headquarters near College Park.
The walks give him exercise, he says, and the cars bring back memories. As he walked by one of the Model T’s in his collection, Cathy remembered the rattletrap car his father, an insurance salesman, used to drive through the Georgia countryside.
As a child, Cathy would help drain out the radiator on winter evenings and fill it back up with hot water the next morning.
“He’d travel miles (in the Model T) to collect 25 cents for insurance,” Cathy said. His father often came back with sorghum syrup or eggs, instead of cash payment, he said.
When Cathy was 16 years old, he bought his first car, a used Hupmobile, for $10. He used it for one of his early business ventures, ferrying people to and from parking lots at Georgia Tech football games. He also has a Hupmobile in his collection.
“I pushed it more than I rode in it,” Cathy said about his first car. “I always had to park it on a hill because either the starter or the battery was dead.”
As a young entrepreneur, Cathy opened the Dwarf Grill, a tiny diner, about the same time that Ford Motor Co.’s Hapeville Assembly Plant was being built nearby. When the plant closed in 2006, Cathy bought the last Ford Taurus that came off the line.
“I favor Ford because my first restaurant was right across the street from a Ford factory,” Cathy said. “I always thought I had to drive a Ford, until the plant manager said ‘Truett, we need to get you in a Lincoln.’”
Cathy agreed to start buying Lincolns, but only because he bought the used ones driven by the plant manager. “I never buy a new car,” Cathy said. “You don’t have to pay $30,000 to have a nice car to ride around in.”
Cathy’s collection is heavily weighted toward Ford brands. He has several Model T’s, a 1929 Model A and a 1938 Lincoln Zephyr.
But he also owns a wide range of other makes and models. He has a 2004 Chevrolet SSR, a souped-up sports truck, a 1981 DeLorean and a 1983 Lamborghini Countach.
“It’s more comfortable looking at it than it is riding in it,” Cathy said about the low-slung Italian sports car.
He has three limousines, including a massive one powered by a Ford pickup.
“It’s kind of hard to get it around the curb, so we don’t take it out too much,” he said.
Cathy has a 1959 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud II once owned by Eva Gabor and a 1937 Lincoln Continental once owned by former U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert.
He has a six-wheeled 1985 Range Rover built for Mike Tyson. The vehicle has mink seat covers and was stretched to make room for two extra rear wheels.
Cathy took it out once and was pulled over by a Fayetteville police officer for driving without a license plate.
“It’s one of a kind,” Cathy said. “It’s custom made. …They say it will climb a tree, but I haven’t tried it.”
Some of Cathy’s most prized vehicles include the stately 1930 Rolls-Royce Phantom I, 1909 Cadillac Demi-Tonneau and 1933 Packard.
His favorite car, though, is a 1934 Ford Cabriolet. “My brother-in-law bought a new one when I was 13 years old,” said Cathy, eyeing the classic, two-door vehicle. “I said then I hope to be able to buy one someday myself.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution