Shop Tour: Honest Charley Speed Shop – Bringing Homespun Hot Rodding to the World

May 25th, 2010

Often a showplace for nostalgic hot rods, Honest Charley Speed Shop’s showroom awaits its next project, although visitors still marvel at the broad expanse of historic components as well as a cross-section of new age hot ware.

Born with a fervent imagination and a deep appreciation for automobiles from an early age, Honest Charley Card’s easygoing Southern flair belied savvy business methods and a clever marketing prowess that soon empowered an industry.

Over the last six decades, Honest Charley Speed Shop headquarters has enjoyed several locations in historic downtown Chattanooga, TN. Its most recent is also its most visited, with thousands from around the globe dropping in each year.

Utilizing methods first employed by Montgomery Ward & Co. in 1872, and Sears, Roebuck and Co. two decades later, Honest Charley understood the effectiveness of simple catalogs that allowed early enthusiasts access to products that would have otherwise been unknown across most of the United States and around the globe.

Having watched his father build a successful vegetable business as a youngster, Charley came to know the commitment necessary to make a go of a competitive market. Soon Charley brought his own effort into his father’s plan, applying his mechanical prowess at a very young age to maintain the company’s truck fleet. Within a short time he purchased a 1919 Model T touring car, which he followed with a Whippet, a car that eventually provided Charley with the impetus to step beyond the automotive mainstream. Looking to stand out from similar cars, Charley customized his little runabout, and unsurprisingly others noticed and followed suit with his new-fangled components on their own cars.

Since day one the most visible aspect of Honest Charley Speed Shop has been its entertaining catalogs, which have been sent by the millions to the far reaches of planet Earth. From there, enthusiasts have accessed every imaginable component.

Not satisfied with looks alone, Charley also honed his abilities tuning engines, and it was this capability that got the attention of famed racing driver Cannonball Baker, who lived nearby. Soon enough, Charley was wrenching on Baker’s cars, including the Franklin Airman that was used in point-to-point races throughout the region. On one particular occasion Baker set the record on the famed Chattanooga to Lookout Mountain run in 1928, managing a time of 17 minutes and two seconds. From that day on Baker greeted Charley with a cheerful “seventeen oh-two,” whether they met racing on the hard sand of Daytona Beach, or while attending the Indianapolis 500.

Following the revival of the Brickyard after World War II, Charley returned to Indy and other events before getting behind the wheel himself. Always directly involved with his projects, Charley had initialized the development of a 16-valve cylinder head years before, which gave him the wherewithal to team with Buck Jacks in creating a 21-stud cylinder head for flathead Ford engines. Soon thereafter, one of Charley’s newly empowered V-8s was fitted in a ’34 Ford Tudor sedan that would soon make history. To improve its performance potential, the original front fenders were replaced with a streamlined arrangement that Charley created using rudimentary tools of the day, and unsurprisingly, it all worked as planned. With Walter Hartman at the wheel, the sedan managed a best of 115.6 MPH at Daytona, which bolstered Charley’s confidence even more, while providing the impetus for Charley’s next endeavor.

Confident in his understanding of America’s love for hot rods, and well aware of the need for a ready source for every conceivable component, Charley set out to provide rodders and racers, “bootleggers and lawmen” alike with everything needed to realize their automotive dreams. Honest Charley Speed Shop opened its doors in downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee, in November 1948, and almost overnight, its founder’s insightful vision grew from simple beginnings to become one of the most recognized companies in the automotive world.

In much the same way that Richard Sears captured the imagination of his customers, Honest Charley’s persuasive slogans and catchphrases engaged the interest of automotive enthusiasts everywhere. Using homespun sayings and often corny rhetoric like, “Is your hot rod hot or not?” or “You can’t brag if you lag,” gave potential buyers the impetus to get involved, while others like, “Send money, I’ll pay the postage,” left little doubt that “Honest Hisself” lived up to his kindly image.

Whether you’re looking for individual components, steel bodies or every part needed to build your dream ride, Honest Charley Speed Shop has what you need at the right price. Call it one-stop hot rodding. That is unless you phone in!

As the business gained momentum Charley kept his foot in racing, modifying a ’39 Ford sedan that soon became one of the company’s most visible and relevant marketing tools. Powered by a Mercury 59A flathead and streamlined with a distinctive new nose and enclosed wheels, it eventually reached a best of 137 MPH at Daytona Beach in 1953. As its class record was never bested, Charley never brought the sleek sedan back to the beach, however to this day its imagery continues to remind followers of what Honest Charley Speed Shop was all about.

In the years that followed, many up and coming retailers borrowed from Honest Charley’s familiar marketing techniques in their catalogs and stores, which only underlined the effectiveness and timelessness of what had come before. Not content with past performance, Honest Charley Speed Shop continued to expand, creating satellite locations in Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Arkansas, while its colorful, entertaining catalogs were printed in ever-greater numbers. At one point Charley purchased his own printing company to further reduce the cost of his now-famous catalogs, thereby underlining another classic slogan, “passing those savings on to the customer!”

In keeping with the growth of Honest Charley Speed Shop, the staff grew with new enthusiasts, including a youngster from Georgia named Mike Goodman. Always enamored with cars, he was a natural for the job, and following his distinguished tour with the United States Marine Corps in Vietnam, Goodman returned to Honest Charley and a varied succession of hot rods. The first of these was a T-bucket he drove to the second NSRA Street Rod Nationals in 1971, and Goodman still cherishes that car today.

The new millennium marked revitalization for Honest Charley Speed Shop, as Corky Coker and Mike Goodman built upon all that had come before, expanding the scope of the company to include new products and business approaches, while retaining well-established, time-honored traditions that Honest Charley had initialized 50 years before. Since then the company has attained ever-greater stature through its association with the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) and rodding enthusiasts cruising the furthest regions of the free world. It’s as if Charley “hisself” was still priming the creative pump, providing today’s enthusiasts with the same connection with those who know what’s needed to bring the hot rodding experience home.

Old school rodding is alive and well today in historic Chattanooga, as enthusiasts around the world roll through what many feel is the birthplace of the automotive aftermarket, Honest Charley Speed Shop.

Honest Charley Speed Shop

Dept. WOR

1309 Chestnut St.

Chattanooga, TN 37402

888.795.7077 toll-free

423.326.0505

www.honestcharley.com (http://www NULL.honestcharley NULL.com/)

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