Four years ago, Janet Kelly couldn’t locate her red Honda in a parking lot. In a sea of nondescript vehicles, a friend suggested placing a sticker on her car, something only Kelly would recognize—perhaps a Coca-Cola sticker.

But this Louisville, Ky. graphic artist got “Coca-Cola carried away.”

Kelly now calls her Honda the “happiness car.” Her friends call it the “mid-life crisis car.” And last week, it became the “mystery car.” Kelly began receiving calls from family and friends that her car was featured on a local TV newscast. She checked the station’s Facebook page and found that the station was enlisting the help of the community to “find the mystery driver of the Coke car.”  

A Coca-Cola employee spotted the decked-out sedan in a local grocery store parking lot, and took pictures of it. The photos quickly went viral.

“It went from employer to employer, and was passed along every which way until it finally got back to me,” said Kelly, who laughed that it took so many years for the car to make waves.

It had become quite the spectacle throughout the streets of Louisville, with residents and tourists waving to Janet as she drove around town. “It was just a silly little car going through the streets, but the minute it hit the airwaves and landed on the Facebook page for the television station, everyone saw the car and everyone wanted to know about the car,” she said.

Love at First Sip

Kelly’s Coca-Cola story is one of love at first sip. She grew up drinking Coke and slurping Coca-Cola-flavored slushies. Kelly began collecting Coca-Cola memorabilia at just 12 years old when she purchased a small knife set, and continued to acquire a sizable collection of signs, apparel, bottles and other tchotchkes over the years, including a 72-bottle Coke vending machine.

In 1986, Kelly was working in Human Relations for the State of Kentucky. On one of her trips to Harden County to promote the state fair, she encountered a small display of Coca-Cola collector’s items where she met a woman who told her about a collectors club.

“I said there’s other nut-cases like me?" she laughed. "Apparently, there’s a whole slew of them.” Kelly joined the mid-South chapter of the Coca-Cola Collectors club of Kentucky, and then joined the International Coca-Cola Collectors Club in 1987.  

In 2011, while she was attending a September Fest for the mid-south chapter of the club in Elizabethtown, Ky., she stumbled upon the now closed Schmidt Museum of Coca-Cola Memorabilia. Realizing it was the 125th anniversary of Coca-Cola, Kelly decided to turn her ordinary red Honda into an extraordinary homage to the milestone. Her Honda would never be lost in a parking lot again. 

“I literally went nuts with it,” she said.

Kelly had become accustomed to using a vinyl cut machine for work, and decided to reproduce all of her favorite Coca-Cola ads, logos and slogans on her computer and print them on the device. She scoured the Internet for inspiration of all things Coke, dating back to ’50s ads. Cutting them out in layer form, she built up the vinyl in layers to avoid getting air bubbles as she applied each piece to her vehicle.

Coca-Cola Car

One particular design—the bottle now found on the front hood—took Kelly over nine hours to recreate. Printer malfunctions forced her to cut out the intricately shaped design entirely by hand. By 2012, the car was just finished when Kelly rear-ended another car, smashing her hood. After the repair, she recreated the tedious splash logo all over again.

Designing and decorating the car took an estimated 400 hours to complete. Using small paint brushes, and enamel and acrylic paints, Kelly painted it entirely by hand. Keeping true to the color schemes, she used the iconic red, as well as the signature aqua from the 1960s ads, and the vibrant yellow from the 1950s ads.  

“Everything on the car is from my 50 or so years that I remember of Coca-Cola,” she said. After the accident, Kelly also started to remodel some of the car’s designs, swapping out logos and “revamping the design.” She added Coca-Cola Polar Bears to the back seat, and a 3-D poster of a Polar Bear holding a Coca-Cola bottle to the inside ceiling. She also replaces each of the vinyl decals as the car is exposed to light and weather.

Kelly even purchased a Coca-Cola blanket to make seat covers. Though unable to sew, she used pins and Velcro to fasten the covers to the seats. From the rims of the wheels, to the interior walls of the doors, to the sunroof and every square inch in-between, the car is entirely covered in all things Coke.

The side lower panels on both sides of the car feature all of the lyrics from the 1971 Coca-Cola Hilltop ad featuring “I’d Like to Buy the World a Coke,” one of Kelly’s favorite commercials.  

“I’ve been at stop lights, where all of a sudden people start humming and singing the song,” Kelly said. And at a McDonald’s, she once encountered four young children who had learned the song from their mother.

“They sang it in four-part harmony, I couldn’t believe it,” Kelly said.

Bears in Backseat

Her license plate—040 PBX—randomly assigned when she first registered the car, has now become her abbreviation for what she calls “The Polar Bear Express.”

“I love anything with those Polar Bears, so now I just say my license plate stands for that,” she said.

Kelly has often been asked why she decided to plaster the bottles all over the car instead of the cans. “The cans are just generic,” Kelly always responds. “The bottle is Coca-Cola. It’s America. It’s been a part of American history for so long, that if it would go away, I think America would disappear. It’s just a part of us.”

As someone who makes art for a living, Kelly says she is most drawn to how the Coca-Cola logo has transcended generation after generation. I’m fascinated by the logo, and always have been—it’s been around for over 125 years, and it hasn’t changed," she said. "You know it when you see it from all over the world."

For Kelly, Coca-Cola serves as a simple reminder of her roots. “It’s always there, but it’s not forced into you. Coca-Cola is a soft, humble, subliminal presence that always reminds me of home.”

Janet's Favorite Coca-Cola Slogans

'Everyone Smiles... Always'

Throughout the streets of Louisville, most people wave or take pictures as Kelly passes, though others have “gaped” with “bugged out eyes and mouths wide open,” said Kelly, like one woman she encountered in a restaurant drive-thru. What’s common between all of them?

“Everyone smiles,” she said, “Always. Wherever I go, and wherever that car lands, people just love it. It’s my sole means of transportation, it's a feel good car.  When I'm in the coke car I feel happy, and it seems to create a feeling of happiness wherever I go,” she said.

After her first accident, the body shop mechanic joked that all that was left was for the car to be rear-ended or for her engine to die. Sure enough a week before Christmas last year, the motor blew out. Despite everyone trying to convince Kelly that she would have to get rid of the car, she was determined to find someone who could bring it back to life and found a machinist who completely rebuilt the engine.

While it was in the shop, Kelly drove a rental car in what she called “the most depressing time.”

“I was so used to people passing me, smiling and taking pictures. I realized that that car makes me feel good, and it does a lot for everyone else.”

She continued, “Everyone refers to the car as the little happy Coca-Cola car. It’s just a fun car to drive. And it’s a fun car for everyone.”

And what happens if the engine dies again? Kelly won’t even entertain the thought of the Coke Car going out of commission. “I don’t plan on ever letting that happen.” 

Check Out this Gallery for More Images of Kelly's Coca-Cola Car