Virgil Coffman has a long history with cars. He purchased his first one, a Chevy coupe, in 1925 for about $100. Since then, he estimates he has owned about 40 different automobiles. But none of those cars provided as much fanfare and notoriety as his most recent purchase.
It began in September 2009, when Coffman walked into a Chevrolet dealership near his home in Decatur, Ill., and spotted a bright yellow, 426-horsepower, "Transformer" Camaro with black racing stripes. The special-edition model was featured as the character "Bumblebee" in the "Transformers" movie. Coffman hadn't seen the film, but he was impressed with the car. He set his mind on buying it.
"The salesperson was a little uneasy at first, but I convinced him I was serious," Coffman said—so serious that the retired auto worker paid cash for the $38,000 special-edition car. "I figured, who would sell a 101-year-old man a car on time?" Coffman joked.
Coffman, who turned 102 on January 16, 2010, has a good sense of humor, but his age is no joke. As soon as the ink was dry on the paperwork, he became the oldest known Camaro buyer on record.
Pat Dawson, the general manager of the dealership, has known Coffman for two years. Before selling Coffman the car, Dawson made sure his customer knew exactly what he was getting. "I told him the Camaro was a high-horsepower car and asked him if that is what he wanted," Dawson recalled. "Virgil told me, 'I know what I want, and this is what I want.'"
Coffman, a widower who has also outlived his three children, admits his relatives were a bit taken aback about his purchase. "They were shocked at first, but they came around," he said.
Bob Lamb, a nephew of Coffman, gets a ride with his uncle in the Camaro every Sunday to go to church. Lamb, 69, said that his uncle has always been a "car nut," so it was not a total surprise when he bought the Camaro.
Coffman was born in Perkins, La., but was raised in Illinois. He moved to the Detroit area and worked for General Motors for 25 years, first in the plating division and eventually as a chemist. He always purchased GM cars and particularly fancied Cadillacs. He had never owned a Camaro, but he had made bumpers for them. So why, after all these years, did Coffman decide to buy a Camaro?
"I think it was just the new design and look that got me interested," Coffman said. "I enjoy the way it drives and handles. I also like the fact it is quite a conversation piece."
Coffman has also become the topic of conversation with his car purchase. But, while younger drivers often buy sports cars to attract the attention of the opposite sex, Coffman said he hasn't noticed any heads turning while he's driving. "Well, I try to keep my eyes on the road when I drive, but a lot of ladies at church, or when I go somewhere, come up and ask about the car."
Coffman admitted the one drawback to the car is that it is quite low, so getting in and out is a bit of a challenge. "But once I am in it, it has a great feel and drives so smooth," he said. "I love it."
Coffman, who lives alone in the home to which he retired in 1974, mows the lawn, gardens, bakes, and does housework and repairs to stay busy. Three years ago, he put vinyl siding on his house all by himself, but has recently given up climbing ladders.
Coffman drives every day but avoids driving at night, because the glare bothers him. He recently traveled about 90 miles to Olney, Ill., to visit a relative. "Up until a couple of years ago, I (drove) to Detroit about once a year," Coffman said. "I may try that again this summer."
Traveling by car today is vastly different than in 1917, when Coffman remembers his dad coming home with the family's first automobile, an Overland 90. "Of course most of the roads were dirt, a few oiled," he recollected. "In the winter, we would have to hitch up a team of horses and pull the car out to an oiled or better road to get anywhere."
Back then, Coffman didn't need a license to drive. He didn't get one until he moved to Michigan in 1934. Today, Coffman must take a road test each time he renews his license, which the state of Illinois requires annually of drivers age 87 and older. Coffman, who has his license for next year, admits he's revved the Camaro up to 85 mph on the Interstate, but he cautions, "I'm pretty careful. I don't want to lose my license."
Coffman may be cautious, but he isn't thinking about slowing down any time soon.
Lamb recalled a recent conversation he had with his uncle. "He and I were talking, and he said, 'You know, they only made 1,500 of these cars, and if I would keep this 10 or 12 years, it will probably be worth a lot of money.' Now, from someone about 102, is that optimism or what?" Lamb asked. "I think it sums up Virgil and his outlook on life in general."