Plummeting home prices and the escalation of the cost of everything else signaled the Great Recession was going to be with us for a while. As a home builder, Keith Bledsoe noticed this alarming trend seven years ago, and decided to turn what was at that time a hobby into a new business venture.
With a collection of about 30 cars and land he already owned along Highway 321 in Lenoir City, Bledsoe founded Smoky Mountain Traders. What has distinguished his lot from others is that his inventory consists of Tri-Five ('55-'57) Chevys, muscle cars, and hot rods. Drawing on his home-building background, he realized banks weren't inclined to loan money on the purchase of cars anywhere from 40 to 80 years old no matter what their condition, so none of his are floored or bank financed. Keith owns every one of the 60-plus vehicles he offers for sale, a departure from many classic and custom-car sellers who often sell on consignment.
A few hours at Smoky Mountain Traders is a definite trip down memory lane, even if I personally missed the muscle-car era of the '60s and early '70s. Every person who stopped by had a story or recollection of a first date, a car sold before entering the military, or one driven on a honeymoon. The link between man and machine is never closer than that of an enthusiast and the object of their enthusiasm. Inevitably, buyers of most of Keith's cars are drawn to a certain make and model because it holds some personal attachment. A hot rodded '55 T-Bird with a small-block Chevy V-8 and a completely updated undercarriage made me think of my dad, who would've been all over this one despite being a car dealer himself.
These days, most of Bledsoe's buyers are in their 50s and 60s, and they realize the real estate bubble probably burst before they knew what happened—and that the stock market's volatility is far from the comfort level of knowing your investment is something tangible resting in your garage that you can drive and enjoy. For about the price of a new Honda or Toyota, Bledsoe will put you behind the wheel of something really sharp—a cool set of wheels that will make most of your neighbors (who get it) envious.
Keith's inventory can be seen online at smokymountaintraders.com, but if you want the whole sensory experience and the possibility of finding your vehicular soul, take a drive to Lenoir City just south of Watts Bar Lake and TVA Fort Loudon Dam to 11840 Highway 321 South (988-8088). You won't be disappointed; I know I wasn't.