For 23 years, Steve Smith ran "Big Hearted Smitty's," a "buy here, pay here" used car dealership on Rossville Boulevard with an iconic, heart-shaped, neon sign out front.
Then about a month ago, Smitty was having dinner at the Walden Club, a private dining club high atop the Republic Centre building in downtown Chattanooga, when he noticed bright lights coming from Chattanooga's resurgent southside neighborhood.
"They just kind of lit up the whole skyline," Smith said.
Those lights emanate from Mountain View Auto Row, a family of Nissan, Ford, Lincoln and Chevrolet dealerships on East 20th Street.
They're one reason Smith decided to shut down Big Hearted Smitty's at 3600 Rossville Blvd. and reopen with a new name, Phoenix Auto Sales, at a new location on the north side of 20th Street between Mountain View Ford and the Country Hearth Inn & Suites.
"The idea was to get into a little bit more vibrant location," Smith said. "They do a lot of advertising and draw a lot of traffic down here."
The new name also represents a new direction.
"Our business model has changed a little bit," said Smith, 65, who plans to retire soon and hand the reins over to his son, Derek.
"That's why we chose the name. It's a passage, a transition," Smith said, referring to the Phoenix, a mythical bird that lives 500 years and then burns itself in its nest and is reborn three days later.
Phoenix Auto Sales will have between 50 and 70 cars on its lot, about twice the number for which Smitty's had space.
"We're upgrading our inventory to much later-model cars than what we had," Smith said. "We hope to attract a broader clientele."
Smith also hopes to keep his existing customer base. Phoenix has the same four full-time employees as Smitty's did, and it's about 2.5 miles away from the Rossville Boulevard location.
While "big hearted" won't be on the sign, anymore, Smith still promises to work with people whose credit scores won't pass muster with a traditional lender.
"The lender, they're not really interested in your story. They want to know what your credit score is," Smith said. "We're pretty much able to listen to their story and see if they're legitimate."
Derek Smith said, "The spirit does live on, the Big Hearted Smitty's spirit. We'll always be big-hearted."
The Smiths are selling the Rossville Boulevard location, which they own. They may stash the old neon Big Hearted Smitty's sign in a barn. It was designed by a female relative who's a graphic artist.
"It was a really catchy name. It was fun, for sure," Derek said. People would sometimes stop and have their photo taken near the sign, he said.
"A lot of them were Smiths," Derek said, explaining "Smitty" is a common nickname for someone named Smith.
Steve Smith is from Birmingham, Ala., and moved to Chattanooga around 1970 to work as the credit manager for the W.T. Grant store at what's now a Big Lots in Fort Oglethorpe.
W.T. Grant was a chain comparable to Kmart; it went bankrupt in 1975.
"We stayed open on Sunday, and at that time, nobody was open on Sunday in the entire Chattanooga area," Smith said.
Smith got his start in the car business 42 years ago working for Forrest Cate Ford on 20th Street.
Cate sold the business to his general sales manager, Austin Watson, who hired Smith. Watson went on to found what's now Mountain View Auto Row. His sons and grandsons run the business now.
"I've come to where I started. I've kind of come full circle," Smith said.
Mountain View previously had a buy-here, pay-here lot at the site of Phoenix Auto Sales, said Don Thomas, the dealer and general manager of Mountain View Nissan. Thomas and Andy Watson, the dealer at Mountain View Chevrolet, are partners with Steve Smith in Phoenix Auto Sales.
"It helps our customers with a little bit of credit problems," Thomas said of the new endeavor. "At the Phoenix lot, we do the financing for them."
Contact staff writer Tim Omarzu at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6651.
Tim Omarzu covers Catoosa and Walker counties for the Times Free Press. Omarzu is a longtime journalist who has worked as a reporter and editor at daily and weekly newspapers in Michigan, Nevada and California. Stories he's covered include crime in blighted parts of metro Detroit and Reno, Nev.; environmental activists tree-sitting in California's Sierra Nevada foothills; attempts by the Michigan Militia to take over a township¹s government in northern Michigan. A native of Michigan, ...
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