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Used car dealerships. In East Tennessee, and especially here in Knoxville, this particular slice of classic Americana has been generously apportioned. It's almost as if the gods of commerce looked down and saw too many hikers running amok through our fair Appalachian countryside and commissioned the prophets of low interest financing to preach the Gospel and save the heretics from their impending doom.
Used car lots smother our landscape, blinding innocent passers-by with the reflected glare of sun on polished chrome. Our local airwaves are shrill with the sound of dealers' brimstone rants. And the weighty weekend automotive supplement of our esteemed daily newspaper seems on the verge of bursting at its folded seams, barely able to contain the explosive volume of block-letter flash and zero-down hyperbole inside.
Nowadays, almost every factory dealer in town offers an expansive selection of buffed and polished pre-owned vehicles in addition to endless rigid rows of marginally nicer but substantially pricier new ones. But the soul of the used car business lies not with the brand-name brokers, but with small independent dealers, those maverick yokels who ply their trade without factory backing or seven-digit credit lines.
You've seen them, dug in against the torrential commuter flow on Alcoa Highway and Kingston Pike, spooned in next to cheap motels and karate schools on Chapman and Clinton Highways. They lack palatial showrooms, those gleaming geodes full of space-age sports coupes and Jurassic pickups. Their grounds are often chaotic, spliced by gaudy streamers and pastel penant chains. Even their office quarters fall well short of posh manufactured cottages and aluminum sheds announced by removable letters on yellow cafe signs.
But these dealerships, with names like Auto Village and Merle's Motors and Great American Wheel Ranch, represent the grass-roots faction of a business that by its very nature seems to seek a certain symbiotic connection to the people it serves. And in an era when dealer-affiliated lots are consuming an ever-increasing share of the used car market, many small dealers believe those gaudy streamers and roadside gravel pits may also represent the last outposts of a distinctly American phenomenon.
There are nearly 200 independent used car dealers in Knox County alone, truly a staggering figure when you take into account dozens of other new/used dealers in town and God knows how many more spread throughout surrounding counties. And once you've paused to mull the motivations of these colorful folk, you may also wonder just why there are so damned many of them.
According to Wayne Kenner of Classy Motors Company, Inc., the answer lies in the fact that the need for automobiles is unrelenting, even in the face of skyrocketing prices.
"I think what happened is that new cars got so expensive that a lot of your market was shut out," says Kenner, a short, powerfully built man with a high-pitched voice that belies his stubbly countenance and gym-wrought physique. "More used car lots started opening and offering on-site financing for people who didn't have lots of money or good credit."
Kenner and his staff count themselves among that group. Classy Motors is a so-called "buy here, pay here" lot, used car shorthand that signifies on-site financing. Kenner says even though more than half of his customers have credit problems, he rarely turns down an application.
But promiscuous financing isn't the only reason Classy is arguably the best-known used car lot in town. In a business that thrives on razzle and chutzpah, Classy Motors is as brash and garish as they come. The lot on Clinton Highway is a lavender vision, blanketed by a canopy of light purple streamers and set about with matching banners.
And Classy television commercials are the stuff of local legend, trailer-park vaudeville classics overrun with homespun characters such as the Credit King (decked out in regal robes, wearing a crown and holding a scepter) and Judge Otto Deeler. Other ads have featured regional grappling stars from the now-defunct Smoky Mountain Wrestling Federation, including "Nature Boy" Buddy Landell, who, flanked by two bikinied models, tosses his platinum blonde mane, thumps his beefy pecs, and blusters with all the boisterous ringside machismo he can muster. (Classy is a former sponsor of SMWF, and Kenner even stashed the federation's championship belt as a keepsake.)
And then there are the drag queens; that's right, some of the buxom, scantily-clad women you see vamping through Classy Motors car ads aren't women at all but are rather stunningly realistic imitations of them. Kenner says he included local drag sensation Shannon DeVaughn and nationally-renown female impersonator Sable Chanel (a former "Showgirl of the South" winner) in Classy ads specifically to appeal to the local gay community.
"We try to make this a place where everyone fits in," says Kenner, perhaps understating his case. "If you watch our ads, you'll eventually see someone you relate to. Smoky Mountain Wrestling was a particularly good marketing strategy for us. I bet we sold 500 cars because of the wrestling tie."
For Classy, 500 cars is roughly equivalent to a year's worth of sales, and that statistic qualifies the business as one of the brightest success stories in an area where the competition is so unrelentingly fierce that even the most reckless entrepreneurial spirits may pause and shudder; there are now more than 50 used car dealerships along the 640-to-Clinton stretch of the highway, marking it as perhaps the area's most fertile breeding ground for car lots.
But it wasn't always so; Knox County commissioner Howard Pinkston remembers a time, some three decades past, when Chapman Highway was Knoxville's used car row, populated by the likes of Cliff Pettit Motors, Parkway Motors, and the first outpost of Delmar Haynes.
By Pinkston's reckoning, the growth of outlying communities eventually pushed the car biz to points north and west; and during the late 1970s, dealers began swarming Alcoa and Clinton Highways like fleas on strays, even as many Chapman lots gave up the ghost. Today, all that remains of Chapman Highway's old guard are Waddell Motors, Knox Motors, and Pinkston Motors (a partnership run by Howard and brother Paul), a tiny lot a half-mile past the Henley Street Bridge just this side of Auto Zone.
If Classy is the used car business's baroque, ostentatious Yin, then Pinkston is its folksy, low-key Yang. Howard Pinkston ("Nookie" or "Pinky" to friends) refers to his dealership with its neon pink sign and inviting little office porch as a "spit 'n' whittle club" for South Knoxville. "Sometimes they call this place the House of Knowledge," 86-year-old regular Conrad Loy says with an expansive grin, savoring his own droll hyperbole. He also refers to Paul as "the man who rode a mule around the world."
On a given Friday afternoon, you're apt to find the Pinkstons and assorted South Knox neighbors kicked back in the small air-conditioned office, drinking coffee and munching snack cakes, expounding on everything from hound dogs to football to the country's precipitous moral decline under philandering Bill Clinton and his shameless cronies. (One mild-mannered elderly gent, a widower, causes quite a stir when he breaks in and asks "Sol, did you ever commit adultery?" and then adds, matter-of-factly, "Boy, I sure did.").
The atmosphere at Pinkston Motors is so laid-back and gracious (Howard greets you with a warm and fervent "Hey, buddy!" in his pinched voice every time you walk in the office door) that you don't doubt it for a moment when the brothers say honesty is one of the keys to their success. Howard figures the prevailing notion of used car salesmen--as silver-tongued swindlers and ace-up-the-sleeve con men--is a holdover from the days of horse trading.
"The joke now is that politicians and TV preachers have moved ahead of used car dealers," Pinkston says with a chuckle. "That whole image was around before I even got into the business, but some of the finest people I've known sold used cars."
But according to A.C. Carmichael, a third-generation dealer and proprietor of Carmichael Motors on Fifth Avenue, the rep hasn't always been undeserved.
"We do have some people we wish weren't in it," he says. "People who sell autos that are shot, wore out, and should've been buried. And those are the ones who prey on people with bad credit."
Carmichael grew up whiling away his afternoons at the same lot he now runs, a lot then owned by his grandfather, "Big A.C." He remembers other local proprietors who used less than scrupulous methods to "pour a man into a car," including one old dealership whose salesmen would often "lose" customers' keys during test-drives or even wholesale their old cars out from under them, then offer deals on new vehicles to make amends.
In these days of Naderism and heightened consumer awareness, Carmichael says the game's more predatory strategists are apt to stick to classic hard-sell tactics, with a touch of playground psychology thrown in for good measure.
"The key is to get you on the lot and then get you in that office," says Carmichael. "Some dealers will let you take a car home overnight. The thinking is that a neighbor invariably comes over, you brag, and then your male ego won't let you drive your old car home again the next day even if you get slapped with a bigger price tag than you were expecting.
"But sometimes it's a Catch 21. You've got some people selling cars that might not run too good to other people who might not pay 'cause they don't have good credit. Then it's hard to say who's doing who. The bottom line is that you get what you pay for, and if someone offers you a $10 bill for $5, something is wrong."
John Waddell, whose Waddell Motors with its small but spiffy red-white-and-blue showroom has existed on Chapman Highway for 45 years, is more blunt when he addresses the bad rap used car dealers often get in popular discourse.
"The independent auto dealer performs an important service for working men and women," he says with stony resonance. With his sharp features, penetrating eyes, and tidal swell of ungovernable gray locks, Waddell has the look, as well as the lot, of a classic car salesman.
"Not everyone can afford a new car. That's where independent dealers come in. Most of these stories you hear are exaggerated."
Waddell may have a point, because small dealers, even more so than their factory-affiliated counterparts, have a vested interest in fostering goodwill and encouraging repeat business.
"If you sell 'em junk, it comes back on you," says Tim Beeler of A&A Auto on Maynardville Highway. "Bad news travels a whole lot further and faster than good news."
After just one year with his own business (he spent several years as a salesman at Cars Etc. just up the road), Beeler says more than a quarter of his sales come from referrals or repeat customers. At Classy, Kenner estimates the figure at well over half. But nowhere is the phenomenon more evident than at Pinkston Motors, where the line between buyer and socializer is so indistinct that it's almost nonexistent. Here, almost everyone who stops by to prop their feet up on the front porch rail or sip coffee from a styrofoam cup in the office has bought at least one car from Howard and Paul over the years, and probably three or four.
Howard points to Loy and guesses that the South Knox native has purchased more than a dozen cars at Pinkston in the last 25 years. Loy agrees that it's been "at least that many" and starts counting on thick fingers, enumerating various grandchildren, cousins, and miscellaneous acquaintances in a gruff, smoky voice.
"I know I've bought three Volvos here alone," Loy says after considerable deliberation. "Or maybe it was four."
A.C. Carmichael still tends his account at the same Broadway financial institution that employed his grandfather some 50 years ago (he says he still can't keep the tellers' names straight, so he calls them all "honey"). His Wednesday morning ritual always includes a stop at the bank to make a deposit and check his balance before heading out for a day at the auction.
The ritual is an important one, because for used car salesmen, auctions are a chief source of product, providing small dealers with access to big dealers' trade-ins and leasing company cast-offs at prices that (usually) leave enough room for mark-ups. Around Knoxville, three auction companies--Airport Auto Auction on Alcoa Highway, Mid-South on Chapman, and Odessa in Lenoir City--offer dealers-only "rolling sales" (meaning the cars are ready to drive off the lot) every week.
But Carmichael Motor Co. specializes in Honda parts and service, and all of the cars on its lot are Hondas that have been recycled--rescued from the scrap heap and refurbished with used nuts and bolts in CMC's mammoth garage. Carmichael's auction of choice is run by SADISCO, a national company that sells wrecked and stolen cars to dealers and junk men.
Roughly the size of two football fields, the SADISCO lot off Gov. John Sevier Highway is a great elephant burial ground for cars, filled with row upon infirm row of ailing automotive pachyderms. But if the cars at SADISCO have a few more battle scars than those at other auctions, Carmichael (whose background includes selling both new and standard used cars) says the song remains the same once the bidding starts.
"Dealer auctions are the biggest gatherings of 50-year-old 10-year-olds you'll ever see," he says, rubbing his coarse red beard. "It's a lot like the playground, and the auctioneer is the one who settles the fights."
Auctions are where the real wheeling and dealing takes place, says Carmichael, where dealers vociferously note grievous flaws in cars they intend to bid on, hatch furtive conspiracies with one another when the stars align on a mutually agreeable sale, even gouge up the bidding on competitors in response to real or imagined slights.
"They always tell me I know what I'm doing at these things, but there are times when I leave wondering," Carmichael says. "It's like Vegas, except you don't have to take the plane ride. I doubt Vegas has anything that raises your heart rate any more than standing under an auction truck with a $2700 bid on a car worth $2000."
But that sense of risk and brazen entrepreneurial endeavor seems in many ways to be more intrinsic to used car brokering than any purely financial consideration, and the threads that run through different small dealerships are often more metaphysical than monetary, encompassing familial traditions, ineffable social mandates, and maybe more than anything else, an abiding fondness for four-wheeled automatons.
"I wasn't even what you'd call an average student," says Carmichael, who raced hotrods before he settled into his first sales job at a dealership. "I just wanted to lay under cars and sell cars and drive cars. I was ate up with the business all my life."
Beeler, a former drag racer himself, echoes the sentiment almost verbatim, and adds: "My uncle built Cobra replicas; my dad was a paint and body man for 30 years; this was my way of dealing with 'em."
But in recent years, Beeler says fewer factory dealer trade-ins have been showing up at those mammoth auctions, leaving small dealers such as himself to fight over an ever-shrinking piece of the pie and rely ever more on the vagaries of their own customer trade-ins. It's a trend he believes may one day bring an end to the spit 'n' whittle clubs, the chuckle-inducing signage, the homespun advertising gimmicks, and the general backwater quirkiness that have become synonymous with the selling of used cars.
"The new car lots are slowly squeezing out the independents," he says. "They all have used car lots these days, because it's more profitable to recycle their trade-ins than take them to the auctions and sell them. They've figured out that if someone comes in who can't get financing on a new car, they can do the financing themselves on a used car with only $400 or $500 down."
Carmichael also sees it coming--a day when all cars, both new and used, are sold under the haughty specter of corporate autocracy--and his ruddy complexion flushes a blazing crimson at the thought.
"That's where your high-pressure tactics really come into play, when you've got great big lots where all the salesmen have to meet a quota, where they need cellular phones just to stay in touch with the office," Carmichael snorts. "I would never buy a car at a place where I couldn't walk in and talk to the owner."
But those same aspects of corporate car culture that Carmichael so despises may also help ensure that small independent dealers never go the way of the dodo, Walter Mondale, and the Edsel. A significant portion, maybe more than half, of the men and women who now own their own car lots kickstarted their careers hawking new vehicles for factory dealers, and Carmichael admits that most of them eventually sought an escape from the stupefying pressures of commission sales and hard-sell methodologies.
And given that reality, it stands to reason that as long as there are a few cars to be had from public auctions and finicky leasing companies (not to mention the occasional humdinger of a trade-in), you'll always find someone like Howard Pinkston or A.C. Carmichael, sitting in a tiny office with an old air conditioning unit humming in the corner, drinking coffee and watching the withering Tennessee sun shimmer on the hoods of the cars outside.