If your history with the car hobby goes back into the ‘70s or earlier, then you likely recognize the name “Honest Charley”. And while many folks may not know the entire story behind the brand, it is an icon of the automotive aftermarket. Honest Charley Speed Shop is special because of what founder Charley Card did 70 years ago to hand-form the mail-order speed shop industry as we know it. Many businessmen and hot rodders followed after Charley’s concept, and it created a huge network of speed shops and retail centers, which gave hot rodders and racers a place to get speed parts.
So, what would cause a man to take such a big leap and open a shop that most people would say had a limited customer base? Charley Card was a hot rodder and a racer long before he opened the shop, and owned a restaurant in downtown Chattanooga for several years. He earned the name “Honest Charley” by allowing his customers to pay for their meals and make their own change on busy days when his staff could not keep up with demand. He would place the cash register on the sidewalk with a sign that said, “How Honest Are You?”.
Above: Charley Card’s involvement in the hot rod industry didn’t start with his speed shop. It started with a love for racing, but that certainly offered a unique marketing angle when the Honest Charley Speed Shop was founded in 1948. After that, his racing efforts and grass-roots marketing often led to increased sales.
Above left: The marketing approach of “win on Sunday, sell on Monday” was made famous by NASCAR in the ‘60s, but the same mentality held true for Honest Charley in the ‘40s and ‘50s. If a car with “Honest Charley” on the door won a race on Saturday night, guess who would get phone calls on Monday morning? Above right: “Honest Hisself” is seen here in one of his many humorous advertising photos. Slogans like “Is your hot rod hot or not?”, “Send money, I’ll pay the postage” and “Your money back if it ain’t right!” made the brand memorable. Later came others like “anyone who answers knows the answer”. These slogans and values still hold true today, 70 years after the founding of the company.
One day, a hot rodder came to eat at Charley’s restaurant, and tried to pay him with an aftermarket intake manifold for a Ford Flathead instead of cash. Charley took it as payment, and resold it for a profit. It may not have been that single encounter that gave Charley the idea to open a speed shop, but he knew that people wanted speed parts, and he knew that if a single source for many aftermarket parts existed, it would be the first of its kind. In 1948, Honest Charley Speed Shop was born.
Honest Charley Card was regarded as an expert in going fast, and his Southern hospitality kept folks coming back for many years. The charm of the brand, and the fact that Charley Card was more than just a businessman or a sales guy meant that he spoke the language of gear heads and it meant a lot more than you might think.
Above left: Charley would hand-draw each page of the extensive parts catalog, and he would give the same homegrown treatment to the advertisements that he placed in automotive magazines. It started as a way of saving money, but it became a trait of Honest Charley catalogs for many years after his first rendition. Above center: Hot Rod Magazine was the vehicle to spread the word about our great industry, while Honest Charley stepped in at the perfect time to capitalize on the hot rodding boom. Even though Charley spent a great deal of time perfecting his business plan, his advertisements were always fun and interesting to the reader. Above right: Incorporating a clever range of homespun marketing methods, it wasn’t long before the company’s sales network attracted customers from across the nation and around the globe. Honest Charley magazine advertisements and catalogs quickly grew with an ever-expanding array of components from every major manufacturer in the business.
Above left: Special products, like this homegrown camshaft degree wheel made Honest Charley Speed Shop famous. Along with the house brand products, Honest Charley offered a full range of products for dirt track cars, hot rods, drag cars and even moonshine runners. Above right: By the 1970’s, the hot rod and racing industry had changed drastically, and the Honest Charley brand had to evolve as well. This turn in the hot rodding economy, as well as the death of Charley Card in 1975, sent Honest Charley into a spiral that ultimately ended with the company closing its doors in 1990.
Interestingly, the early days of Honest Charley Speed Shop were not just focused on race cars, as the local popular of moonshine runners gave him plenty of business. Multiple carburetors, trick suspension, free-flowing exhaust and many other hop ups were common on the old Fords that hauled moonshine in the mountains and valleys around Chattanooga, and there was only one place to get the right stuff–Honest Charley Speed Shop. The location of Chattanooga, Tennessee was near the Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina state lines, so it was a high traffic area, even before the interstate highway system was in place.
While Honest Charley retail stores and distribution centers found their way across Tennessee, Georgia and Florida, the bulk of the company’s sales volume came by way of the now familiar catalog displaying well-known cartoon caricatures and slogans created by “Honest Hisself.” As the brand grew, the name Honest Charley was plastered on the side of many race cars, from local heroes to big names like “Jungle Jim” Liberman’s funny cars. Racers even got an “Honest Charley Bonus” for winning races with Honest Charley stickers on their cars–it was the early stages of contingency sponsorship programs in the world of drag racing.
Above: Enter Corky Coker, a Chattanooga, Tennessee businessman, known for his collector vehicle tire company, Coker Tire. He bought Honest Charley in 1998 and vowed to bring back this iconic speed shop for all to enjoy. He did just that and it’s still going strong today.
Above left: Though it operates on a smaller scale than the glory days of the ‘60s, Honest Charley Speed Shop is still a hot rodding icon of Chattanooga, Tennessee. The crew at Honest Charley welcomes hot rodders to stop by the shop Monday through Friday from 8am to 5pm Eastern time to step back in time. Above right: A wide variety of parts is available in the store, but Honest Charley stocks many other parts in the warehouse and can drop ship products from just about any manufacturer in the automotive aftermarket.
Years passed, and the Honest Charley brand continued to develop, but racing was becoming less of a grass roots motorsport and more of a business. It had lost a lot of its appeal and it caused a major downfall in the speed parts industry. People remembered the brand, remembered the shop and remembered Honest Hisself, even after he passed away in 1975. The company eventually folded in 1990.
Honest Charley Speed Shop got a breath of fresh air when Corky Coker bought the company in 1998. He recruited long time Sales Manager, Mike Goodman and Joe Lombardo to help revive the shop and give it a new identity. Now, almost twenty years later, Mike has retired, and Joe is nearing his well-earned retirement, while a new crop of car guys are answering the phones and processing orders. Honest Charley Speed Shop still offers speed parts for many types of hot rods and muscle cars and serves customers with real world car knowledge and advice. If you’re in the area you should check them out and take a step back to a simpler time in the hot rod industry.
Above left: Recently, the “Paint Chip ‘Cuda” paid a visit to Honest Charley. This iconic speed shop offers a great background for a car that graced the pages of Plymouth Brochures in the early 1970’s, but didn’t actually exist as a “real car” until Tim Wellborn commissioned the Bomb Factory restoration shop to build a clone. Above right: The world famous Honest Charley Speed Shop logo can be seen across the world, thanks to millions of these oval decals. Even after 70 years, the brand still had tons of charm.
Above: If can make it to one of the Chattanooga Cruise-In events (typically held in early April), you can get a glimpse of the impact that Honest Charley has on this region, as thousands of cars and spectators flock to downtown Chattanooga, Tennessee for one of the biggest one-day cruise-in events in the country.