The thing about taking Ed Harvey to lunch is he doesn't do lunch. Not the see-and-be-seen-at-Regas kind; not the secluded-booth-at-Chesapeake's kind; not even the grab-a-meat-and-three-at-the Glenwood kind or any other kind. If you want to have lunch with Ed, you'll have to go where he is. And you'll probably want to stop at Burger King and pick up a big cup of coffee and a fish sandwich to carry down to Eddie's Auto Parts at the southern edge of Fountain City.
Because that's where you'll find him all day every day except Sunday, selling everything from the Real LeRoy Mercer tapes to damn good oil filters to the gigantic baby-poop yellow shoes Bob Toole left there awhile back. At 78, he still jumps that waist-high counter countless times a day, and he doesn't stop for lunch.
That work ethic has paid off, so much so that somewhere on that mythical list of Knoxville's millionaires, right between Pete DeBusk and Jim Haslam, alphabetically speaking, you should find Edward Ralph Harvey—former race car driver, former night club owner, former seller of extralegal whisky, and present auto parts dealer, gentleman farmer, and cult figure extraordinaire.
"I just don't have the damn time to go out to lunch," he says. "Ain't nobody working here but me, and I don't care a thing about having lunch. I wouldn't even know where Regas was."
In recent years, the notoriety of the longtime proprietor of Fountain City landmark business Eddie's Auto Parts has gone global, thanks to his role in the prank calls that began with a telephoned complaint about a bad oil filter. Harvey didn't know John Bean personally, but now, long after Bean's death, Harvey wishes he had.
"He was a damned genius for getting people agitated. I wish he was still alive. We coulda made a damn fortune."
Thanks to the tape, Harvey has had visitors from all over the country, and most recently a writer from California who was working on a story for a magazine the name of which Harvey can't quite remember.
"It goes all over the damn country, though."
Ed Harvey was born on the other side of Maynardville in Little Valley in the Jennie Pond District of Union County. When he was young, his mamma, Jessie, divorced his dad, Earl, and the hard times set in early.
"We lived all over Knoxville; moved every time the rent come due."
Although his own drinking and racing days are long over, fast cars and whisky run through Harvey's life story like chord progressions though a country song.
He comes from a long line of whisky-makers. His great grandfather, Jack Woods, had a government license to manufacture whisky, and built a Union County empire with the profits.
"He had a four-story building, the biggest building in Union County," Harvey says. "And a 600-acre farm and a grocery store and a saw mill and six tenants.
"He had to sell his whisky out of Tennessee, and he had a production line where they'd put it in gallon crocks and ship it in cases. My momma worked on the line where they'd put cork stoppers in the jugs with a little wooden mallet, and every once in a while she'd bust one. She said it was awful hard to stay sober on that production line."
Harvey says that when he was young, he asked his mother how the old man had made so much money.
"She said 'Well, he wasn't supposed to sell that whisky to anybody in Tennessee, but early in the mornings, before light, they'd load up a wagon with a team of mules, and they'd take that whisky to Middle Tennessee.'
"When my great grandpaw died, it all turned to shit. They didn't have a leader, and it wasn't long before they were give out. They drunk the rest of it up because they'd all turned into alcoholics."
He gives a pretty bare-bones account of his growing-up years, but it's clear that he had a knack for making money at an early age.
"There was this beer joint close to where I lived on Texas Valley, and I'd slip out there and set nails under their tires. They'd go to pull out of the parking lot and you'd hear that tire go 'ssssssttttt.'"
When the driver got out to survey the damage, here'd come Ed with a jack and a pump and an offer to fix the tire for a dollar. Before long, they got wise to his scam.
"They got to where I'd just be standing there and everybody that'd go inside would give me a dollar just to keep me from puncturing their tires." He used the money to buy his lunches at school.
He got his first legit job, as a bicycle messenger for Western Union, after he graduated from Halls High School in 1940, when he was 17. "I got acquainted with every street in Knoxville," he says.
After an interlude in the U.S. Army "when the Japanese jumped on us," he decided to go into business and went to see Claude Myers, who was president of Fountain City Bank, and asked for a $500 loan.
"At first, he wouldn't give me the loan, but then he found out I was a good welder and told me if I'd build the swings in Fountain City Park, I could have the money. So I built the swings, and they are still standing. I got my loan—that's when I was poor as a church mouse."
With that seed money, he bought the property on Walker Boulevard in Arlington and went into business, saving money as he went, and buying up property along the way. Selling auto parts and working on cars was a natural entree into the racecar business, and from 1948-1955, he indulged his need for speed.
"I saw them racing at Broadway Speedway, and I started sponsoring cars. First thing I knowed, I had a race car of my own. We ran little old Ford Coupes. They wouldn't be considered fast today, but we ran on a quarter-mile dirt track. I got arms broke, fingers, wrists. I got my neck broke and I quit racing right then."
But he stayed in touch with the world of racing by working on the cars—and doing a substantial business working on the little Ford coupes driven by the Newport bootleggers. He had some mechanics who specialized in "whisky cars," refusing to work on anything else.
In the course of his work, he became acquainted with every bootlegger in East Tennessee. The one he remembers best, and maybe misses most, is Rufe Gunter, who died on active duty on Thunder Road.
"The state highway patrol got tipped off that he was coming through, and they were waiting for him at the Swann Bridge. They run him down to Mascot, there at the cement plant, right at the edge of the river. He had 20 cases of whisky in his car. He jumped in the river and was swimming across when he took a cramp and drowned. It was in the winter time. He was 26, 27 years old and had a wonderful personality. It took me two weeks to find him. I ran the riverbanks, and found him about a mile down stream, snagged on a limb. I called the county, and they took him to Newport..."
"When they made whisky legal, all that was over with. You could buy red whisky anywhere you wanted to."
These days, it's Autozone and Pep Boys that are taking their toll, and Ed Harvey is thinking about auctioning off his stock and renting out the building with the sign from the 1982 World's Fair Italian Pavilion on the front. But not to retire. He figures he'll work on his farm and look after his investments, which include bond holdings and some 40 pieces of rental property.
"If I don't, I'll stay till I'm 90 years old," he says, with that little hint of a smile. He still hasn't taken a bite of that fish sandwich.
Who: Ralph Edward Harvey, born October 27, 1922, owner of Eddie's Auto Parts, husband of Ritta Community activist Barbara Harvey, father of four, grandfather of five, great grandfather of seven. Member of the Atomic Speedway Hall of Fame, subject of Heartland Series episode airing next on February 19. Prank call victim/hero.
Motto: "I'd rather be lucky anytime as to be smart."
Explanation: "It's just like driving a race car. If you're lucky, you win. If you're smart, you're trying to figure out why you didn't win. Like Darrell Waltrip—D.W. That stands for 'Dead in the Water.'"
Further explanation: "I am a Scorpio, and the only way a Scorpio can be lucky is to live by a stream, and it's got to be behind you. Anything I own's got a creek behind it."
How he paid Cas Walker cash for a building Walker built (without a permit) on Harvey's property: "When Fountain City Bank sold out to First Tennessee, I got $90,000 out of my stock. The same week, Cas told me he needed $80,000 for the building. Lucky again."