published Monday, April 1st, 2013

End of an era for legendary Chattanooga auto dealer Herb Adcox

The former Herb Adcox Automotive building in the 5700 block of Lee Highway is now available for sale.
The former Herb Adcox Automotive building in the 5700 block of Lee Highway is now available for sale.
Photo by Tim Barber.

Herb Adcox overcame the death of his son, Grant, in a stock car racing accident, but he couldn't overcome the government.

The 83-year-old finally shut down what had become a small used-car business on March 13. It was a quiet end for an auto dealer who had risen to dizzying heights in the automotive universe.

Adcox won Time Magazine's dealer of the year award in 1974. The photo still hangs in his showroom. If there's an important board or committee, he has served on it. If there's a sales or customer service award, he's won it.

His wood-paneled office is lined with letters of thanks from national and local groups. His wife hung a painting of a tiger behind his chair. He still wears a nice shirt and a blazer with an American flag pin in the lapel, though there aren't any customers around to see him.

Known to auto executives, car dealers and manufacturers across the world, Adcox spoke and the industry listened. People liked him. Thousands bought cars from him. Many still travel the streets of Chattanooga in cars he sold them.

In Chattanooga, they called him Mr. Herb. In Detroit, they called him Mr. Adcox.

Yet today, the handful of cars that dotted the lot at Herb Adcox Automotive has dwindled to zero.

"We sold 'em all," said one of the dealership's last remaining workers.

The website is deactivated. The service bays are empty. The paint is peeling. All that remain are a "for sale" sign and acres of bare pavement.

Adcox was still counted among Chevrolet's top car salesmen when a letter from General Motors arrived in the mail. It was a break-up note from the bankrupt automaker. He would receive no more cars. He would receive no money for his parts. It was over.

The wind-down notice would send his business into a death spiral.

Adcox didn't give up right away. He spent more than three years and almost $300,000 fighting to save his company. He only threw in the towel on arbitration when he discovered that the attorney who would hear his case had represented GM in Tennessee for the previous three years. The deck was stacked against him.

"You can't sue the government and win," he said. "They'll outlive you."

He fought the law

In the termination letter, GM told him that he wasn't selling enough cars in Tennessee. But since Chattanooga lies on the state's border, almost 30 percent of his sales were to customers in Georgia and Alabama, Adcox said.

GM didn't agree.

Since then, he joined one of several lawsuits working their way through various federal courts that will attempt to show that GM's U.S. Treasury overlords violated the "takings clause" of the Constitution's Fifth Amendment.

"They cost me millions of dollars by forcing me out," said Adcox, who estimates the current value of his land and buildings at $7.5 million.

Of the 4,000 Chevy dealers in the nation, Adcox was rated 186th by volume in 2009 when GM decided to terminate his franchise agreement. He once sold 2,000 cars a year, kept 150 cars on his lot and employed 75 workers.

In the Scenic City, the savvy businessman headed Chattanooga's Chamber of Commerce and the UTC Chancellor's Roundtable.

At the state and national level, he was among the most active voices in the automotive community, serving as president of the Tennessee Automotive Association, director of the National Automobile Dealers Association, and on the Tennessee Motor Vehicle Commission under four governors.

The new GM

His wasn't some sort of fly-by-night operation, dead weight to be cast off as a way to lift the failing fortunes of General Motors. But to the team of bureaucrats flown in from Washington, D.C., to oversee GM's bankruptcy, Adcox didn't fit into the future of the new GM.

"I've had thousands, literally thousands of people say, 'Herb, why'd they do that to you? They've done you wrong,'" Adcox said Friday at his 56,000-square-foot complex.

From his first days selling Pontiacs in 1949, Adcox was good at his job. He enjoyed spending time with customers, and customers liked buying cars from him. He moved from Oak Ridge to Chattanooga in 1955, then from South Broad Street to Lee Highway in 1968, where he remained.

When Adcox started selling Chevrolet vehicles in 1959, cars still had fins and looked like rocketships. Times were good and everyone made money.

In 1990, 1991 and 1992, he was the No. 1 volume seller of Chevrolet S10 pickups in the country. He toured the nation, offering sales seminars to dealers on how to sell that many trucks and still make a profit.

Moving on

Today, he's doing more shredding than selling, working to destroy decades of customer records in an effort to protect their privacy from potential identity thieves.

A part of him hopes that he can re-enter the auto business in a different guise -- perhaps selling imports or as part of the used-car business. After 60 years, he's grown to love the idea of talking to customers, finding out what they want and getting it for them.

"That's the reason my office is right here in front," he said. "I would never hide from the customer. If they had a problem, I wanted to know about it."

He uses the past tense now to talk about these things. Like many of the other 2,000 dealerships that received cancellation notices from GM during its special government-supervised bankruptcy, he's moving on.

The phone still rings

Subsequent audits have questioned Treasury's move to shut down the dealerships, arguing that the privately owned franchises cost the automaker nothing to run, and in fact supplied it with revenue. Some have questioned the methodology, arguing that GM discriminated against some dealers based on their race, gender or voting habits. Those claims are difficult to prove, and GM has denied them.

GM also revoked its franchise agreement with dealers Tim Kelly and Jack Hall. A few dealerships, such as Cleveland, Tenn.-based Don Ledford Automotive, entered arbitration with GM and were able to regain their franchises.

It will take about six months to wind down operations, Adcox said. He's received some nibbles on the sale of his property, but nothing solid yet. He's open to offers to lease the property, or a buy-leaseback deal. He's already leasing one of his lots to Bob McKamey, owner of the Toyota and Lexus dealerships across Lee Highway. The Chattanooga Airport has bought a few parcels nearby.

For now, Adcox just keeps coming in to work to answer the phone. He doesn't know what the future holds.

"In six months, we will either be in, or out, or both," he said.

Contact staff writer Ellis Smith at esmith@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6315.

about Ellis Smith...

Ellis Smith joined the Chattanooga Times Free Press in January 2010 as a business reporter. His beat includes the flooring industry, Chattem, Unum, Krystal, the automobile market, real estate and technology. Ellis is from Marietta, Ga., and has a bachelor’s degree in mass communication at the University of West Georgia. He previously worked at UTV-13 News, Carrollton, Ga., as a producer; at the The West Georgian, Carrollton, Ga., as editor; and at the Times-Georgian, Carrollton, ...

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