Story and photos by Ron Kowalke
“Rainy days and Mondays always get me down,” is a lyric from a 1971 hit song from The Carpenters. The voice of the late Karen Carpenter singing that melancholy refrain kept popping into my head as I walked the fenceline outside of Richard’s Auto Sales & Salvage on a rainy Monday at dawn, clumsily trying to take pictures with a digital camera while holding it over the fence top and hoping said camera had at least some waterproof characteristics.
On a tip I received from a vendor at Spring Charlotte, the Monday after the event, I headed east towards Asheboro, N.C., to try to locate Richard’s Auto Sales & Salvage. It wasn’t hard. The business is located adjacent to Highway 49, which is the main artery between Charlotte and Asheboro. It started to rain as I came within view of the fenced-in yard, a recurring situation that would pretty much define the rest of the morning.
As I pulled into the yard’s entrance, the gate was closed and locked. It was before 8 a.m., so I passed off the secured gate as just me arriving before regular business hours. Wrong. Upon stepping out of my vehicle and reading the sign attached to the gate, it read that business hours began at 9 a.m. But not until Thursday!
I snapped a few photos of vehicles close to the fenceline and decided I would call the yard’s owner when I got back to Wisconsin and still try to piece together a story.
With the rain and a long drive back in front of me, it was making the best of a bad situation … and there was Karen’s voice again, sadly singing, “Rainy days and Mondays….”
As I was packing away my camera gear inside the vehicle, I noticed it had stopped raining. Then the sun started to peak through the gloom. I decided to take a chance, using my cell phone to call the phone number listed on the sign attached to the gate.
As luck would have it, yard owner Richard Keller was free that Monday morning, and said he would be right over to give me a tour of the yard. At that point, it was great to vanquish Karen’s voice from my head, and I was hopeful I’d not be hearing any new voices up there unless they had solid stock market tips or other yard leads.
I don’t know which of us was more excited: Me, for being able to tour what appeared to be a yard filled with lots of vintage iron during my early-morning view through the fence, or Keller, who explained that his business was for sale, and a story in Old Cars Weekly would be perfect for possibly finding a buyer who would be passionate enough to continue a thriving salvage yard that caters to old car hobbyists.
You’d be smiling too, if you had outbuildings filled
with desirable vintage parts such as this aluminum
intake manifold for a 1963 Chevy 409-cid V-8 with
dual four-barrel carbs.
Opportunity meets opportunity
After our initial introductions, we began to walk among the rows in the front portion of the yard, filled with many complete cars for sale. (The layout is not unlike a museum display for the viewing pleasure of passersby on Highway 49.) As Keller talked about the history of some of the cars I had spotted through the fence, the skies again opened up.
The yard property houses several outbuildings that are filled with cars, parts and memorabilia. Keller devised a strategy whereby we used his four-wheeler all-terrain vehicle to make quick dashes into the automotive rows in the yard under protection of an umbrella so I could take pictures between the heavier dowpours. During the monsoon-like outbursts, we toured his buildings filled with his personal car collection, vintage parts and memorabilia.
My first impression of Keller was that, compared to most salvage yard owners I’ve interviewed, he was extremely laid back. Once I got to know him better, and he explained that he also operates a real estate business, an antiques business and restores cars (he and a friend are currently building a replica of a 1970s NASCAR stock car) on the side, I marveled at how someone juggling so many “customer-focused” businesses could have such a calm demeanor.
Old car enthusiasts are always searching for “barn find” cars,
and this one actually found Keller. He got a tip on this 1939
Ford Tudor sedan and rescued it from a long-term stay in a barn.
The car is complete and still has its original spare tire in the
trunk. Best of all, it’s for sale.
His busy work schedule, according to Keller, and a desire to spend more time with his grandchildren are the reasons he’s looking for someone to purchase his salvage yard operation in its entirety. Keller scaled back the hours of operation at the yard to Thursday through Saturday so he could equally devote time to his multiple business interests.
Staying busy comes natural to Keller as he has spent much of his life in the go-getter mode.
“I had 16 cars before I was old enough to drive,” he said of his early passion for automobiles. He recalled that his first “nice” car as a youth was a 1937 Oldsmobile. He added, “When I was a little boy, my dad sold late-model cars in Pennsylvania. I did paint and bodywork for him as a kid.”
The young entrepreneur also found opportunity right in his Pennsylvania neighborhood. “I found lots of old cars in yards and would buy and sell them.”
Keller moved around the country as a young man before deciding to settle in central North Carolina in 1982. He began his salvage yard that year in what was a 45-acre cornfield. By 1999, when his yard was at its peak inventory, Keller said it contained 4,800 vehicles with “99 percent ranging from 1972 dating back to the ’30s.”
Keller remembers several of the cars he’s sold through the years, including a like-new 1939 Chevrolet that he said came out of a guy’s basement where it was stored for years. Among the earliest cars he remembers was a 1930 Essex and several Cadillacs from the ’30s. “I shipped many of my early cars overseas,” Keller added.
In the past few years, Keller has been paring down his inventory and reorganizing the yard in preparation for its sale. He estimates current inventory stands at 1,100 vehicles with approximately 75 percent of those being vintage. He said he has titles for about half of the yard’s vehicles.
Keller’s yard features mildly hilly terrain. Vehicles are mainly staged in rows with makes generally grouped together, but there are “strays” mixed in among most rows. During my visit, with all the rain, the yard’s red clay base became soft and left stains — I refer to these as fond memories — on my white tennis shoes, so work shoes or boots are advisable if you plan to visit the yard.
Parts hunters are allowed to bring their own tools into the yard, according to Keller, and dismantling of vehicles can work as: “We pull it, you pull it, either way.” The main rule is that Keller operates his business on a cash-only basis.
Keller added that he will ship parts, if their size is reasonable. Aside from cars that are designated as not being available for parts donation, he will sell parts or whole vehicles.
In addition to the depth of vintage vehicles among the rows, the outbuildings in Keller’s yard are filled with desirable parts, many new-old-stock. One of the buildings is filled with engines build-dated 1972 and older. Other buildings contain body panels, interior parts and glass. There are also groups of loose parts located randomly throughout the yard, including rows of bumpers (front and rear) stacked on palettes on the ground.
While he admitted that his business has no computerized inventory, Keller emphasized, “I know what’s in this yard, even if it’s in the wrong place.”
Being so passionate about old cars himself, Keller said he is willing to allow car clubs to tour his salvage yard, but an appointment must be made in advance. With reduced hours of operation due to his other business commitments, it is advised that any visit to the yard, even on days it’s scheduled to be open, be preceded by a phone call to Keller to verify that the yard is actually open. Keller asked that all calls concerning the salvage yard and its contents be placed between the hours of 9 a.m. and 5 p.m (Eastern Standard Time).
Hours of operation at the salvage yard are Thursday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Friday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and Saturday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. To contact the yard, call 336-857-2222 or use e-mail address: email@example.com or use postal mailing address: Richard’s Auto Sales & Salvage, 7638 NC Hwy. 49S, Denton, NC 27239.
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