Warren James Automotive Marks the End of an Era

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Leslie John-James. Photo: Michael Marshall.

Old Crozet receded another step into history in March as Leslie John-James, 75, the widow of Warren James Automotive namesake Warren James, who died in August, relinquished control of the business the couple had run since 1979. 

“Most things are emptied out,” said James as she surveyed the office March 15, the 39th anniversary of the start of the business. She was joined for the last day by her children, Mary-Elizabeth James Via, Noah James Sandidge and John D. James. “We had made plans to go to the Outer Banks in July,” she said. “Warren died unexpectedly,” though he had been sick in the months before. 

The building, owned by the Yancey family, had formerly housed Bonnie Trucking, a repair garage. The buildings that now are the homes of Blue Ridge Builder’s Supply and Pro Re Nata Brewery were likewise truck repair shops. Those were the days when Morton Frozen Foods was making its famous chicken pot pies in what is now Starr Hill Brewery. Raw materials for the Morton’s plant, and for Acme Visible Records’ office filing systems manufacturing business next door, were brought into Crozet by rail, but finished products left in trucks.

“We painted a lot of ConAgra trucks [the company that replaced Morton],” remembered Leslie. “And a lot of county school buses.” The James’s business focused on bodywork at first, rather than mechanical repair.

“People here now don’t understand that trucking was one of the main businesses in our area,” she explained. “Bonnie was followed by ERB, which moved to Three Notch’d Road,” in the location that’s now the home of Crozet Tire.

These three (son, mother, father) comprised “The James Gang” drag racing team in 1994: l-r: John D. James (then-18 yrs. old), Leslie John-James, Warren James. The James Gang Pontiac Firebird, sponsored by Warren James Automotive, was built from scratch by Warren James and his son John D. The car was driven by John D. James, and was a consistent winner on numerous tracks in the Mid-Atlantic region, including being crowned overall champion at Eastside Speedway in Waynesboro. Photo: Phil James.

“We were married for 56 years,” said Leslie. “We met on the school bus.” She lived at White Gate Farm, next door to what is Wickham Pond subdivision now. “We were going to Albemarle High School. I filled the last seat, in the back, next to Warren. They played poker on the way to school and I held the money.

“Warren worked for a dairy above White Hall and was hauling feed for a local mill, Gleco. He liked trucks and driving tractor-trailers.”

Leslie was working at Acme in the personnel department and she rode with Warren on feed runs. “Lawson Baber got him into body work. Then he went to Braggs in Charlottesville and then we came here.

“We started Warren James Automotive in March of 1979. It started with bodywork. Then we added a wrecker to bring in the bodywork and we needed to fix the cars, and it turned into a mechanical repair shop, too. He really like working wreckers, but his health went down and he had to give it up. Warren was uncanny at being able to extract vehicles from difficult locations.”

“He was a gear-head,” agreed Warren’s brother Phil, our area’s historian and the author of the Gazette’s Secrets of the Blue Ridge column. “He was always into car culture.”

Warren was a champion car racer in the 1960s at Sumerduck in Orange County, and he and John built a race car, a Firebird that featured Yosemite Sam on it, that John drove to glory as track champion at Eastside Speedway in Waynesboro in the 1990s.

“Dad was also a good painter,” added Mary Elizabeth. “He was excellent at free-handing pinstripes and other detailing. Really, he was incredible at it.”

When the shop first opened Leslie was working at Gilmer and Desio, a law firm in Charlottesville. When Gilmer died, in 1985, she came to the shop. “I came up here to get things straightened out,” she said. “The records need organizing.” And it was also easier for caring for their young family. “I enjoyed working for Mr. Gilmer. He was a true Southern gentleman. His word was his bond. I imagined him as a grandfather.” The other thing was Warren liked having company. “I hung around for the heck of it so I could fuss at him.

Crozet 4th of July parade 1992. Warren James Automotive’s 4-wrecker-hitch (with 5th detached wrecker unit leading the line). It was perhaps the single-largest attached Crozet parade entry ever. Photo: Leslie-John James.

“Once we started the wrecker, we had to fix breakdowns. We paid for many families to stay in motels while their cars were being fixed. Warren couldn’t believe how many people travelled with no money. Most time people paid when they got home. They sent us the money.” Only once did Warren get stiffed on a bill, by a sailor on his way to Norfolk.

“Our parents gave a lot to the community,” interjected Mary-Elizabeth, “and we continue to do it because we saw them do it. Family is important,” she added. “Mom and Dad instilled that in us.”  

“Warren worked on Crozet fire department trucks for a long time and repaired county police cars,” said Leslie. “Warren always wanted things right. He was perfectionistic. Don’t say ‘I can’t’ to Warren James. He’d say, ‘You have to figure it out. Think!’

 “Warren was wonderful for people while he was here. It will never be the same place without him.”

Now that she’s retired, Leslie still has things to do to settle her mother Adelaide Spainhour’s estate. She still has the company of the big, protective Rottweiler that used to lounge in the office. And she inherited Warren’s 15 beehives, which she’ll keep going despite being allergic to bees. “I won’t use chemicals. I try to keep my bees healthy naturally.” She’s a member of the Central Virginia Beekeeper’s Association. 

“We’re thankful to the Crozet community for their business and their support,” said Mary Elizabeth. 

Matt Hildebrand, who has been overseeing the repair shop, is taking over the business and will keep the name “out of respect,” he said. The body shop will close for the time being. He’s added a front-end alignment machine and will put more emphasis on tire service. He also offers state inspection service. Hildebrand said he plans to paint the building, pave the parking lot and refurbish the waiting room. “Everything will be pretty much stay the same.” In time he intends to add mechanics. 

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