Jerry Pelham enjoys a quick break Oct. 4, 2012, at Pelham's Auto Salvage, a shop that he has owned for more than 50 years, in Woodbury, Tenn. (TMP Photo/Matt Masters)
There may be no man in Tennessee who has bought more wrecked or junked vehicles than Jerry Pelham, best known as the "Auto Salvage King of the Midsouth."
Ask the lifelong Woodbury resident how many cars and trucks he has purchased over the past half century and he cannot hazard a guess.
“I have no idea – a lot of ’em,” said Pelham, 68, who opened Pelham’s Auto Salvage in 1958 when he was a lad of 14.
It would not be a fantastic notion to reckon the grand total of his vehicles might stretch bumper to bumper from Woodbury to Detroit and back again.
Pelham’s motor madness and business brilliance began with a junker ’49 Ford that he bought way back when for $40.
“It was rusted out and didn’t run too good,” said Pelham, who these days drives a 2005 Chevy pick-up. “I bought it wrecked and fixed it. I don’t buy no new ones.”
Pelham has seen a sea of change in the salvage and automotive industry over the past seven decades.
“Used to be everybody worked on their cars," he said. "You’d change engines in your driveway or go see a shade tree mechanic. Now you gotta take them to where they use a computer to check ’em. When I started we’d just check fire and gas, but today there are sensors on everything."
Pelham, an old dog in the salvage world and as congenial a gent you’ll ever meet, has learned a few new tricks. Besides buying clunkers that folks tote, tow or push on to his property, he purchases cars over the Internet. And he’s adding a new attraction to his business come early November with a “you-pull-it” lot.
“I buy so many cars," he said. "These cars we’re gonna drain the oil and put ’em up on rims. They’ll be new models and old models. We’ll charge a $2 fee to go in. You can just go out there and get what you want and come in and pay real cheap prices. We’ll start with 400 to 500 cars. I think the lot will hold 1,000 cars, and we’ll rotate ’em out and put fresh ones in,”
Pelham grew up a half mile away from his salvage lot, about three miles south of Woodbury on U.S. Highway 53.
The eldest of six children born to Noah and Alice Pelham, the 68-year-old Cannon County native learned from his mechanically minded father who worked on appliances and televisions.
He ventured into the salvage and scrap business when he was 14 on March 13, 1958, when he bought his original business license for three bucks.
“My dad bought aluminum and copper, and I started junking cars and selling the parts,” said Pelham, who moved his business to its present location in 1976.
Here on about 20 acres, he keeps 1,000 cars, more or less, almost all of them purchased from individuals or at insurance auto auctions.
Currently, he’s been buying cars that no longer run for $11 per 100 pounds and hulls for $10 per 100 pounds. He said that averages between $350 to $500 per car depending on the weight of the vehicle.
Eddie Taylor, now retired, was Pelham’s first employee and worked the parts counter for 24 years.
“We didn’t have no computer," Pelham said. "We hand wrote all the tickets. We knew where everything was. Cars were simpler. They would ask me and Eddie, ‘Have you got this?’ and we could go and get it, but now we got computers.”
Pelham’s Auto Salvage employs 10 people, including four members of his family.
His son Terry has been disassembling cars “ever since he was big enough to walk,” Pelham said.
His wife, Joyce, handled the bookkeeping for years, a chore now taken by daughters Angie Rogers and Amy Bogle, and his son-in-law Richard Bogle operates the wrecker service.
Pelham’s best sellers include engines, transmissions, door glass, alternators and starters.
“We probably got about 500 motors and 600 transmissions,” he said, adding they’re all neatly labeled and stored in sheds.
Besides selling auto parts, Pelham’s Auto Salvage recycles scrap metal and aluminum cans and offers 24-hour wrecker service. Customers looking for parts phone in from across the United States.
“We had one guy in Chicago who called and said he saw one of my (ball) caps and our number. We’ve got ads in these locator magazines, and I have ’em call from these magazines, and we have a website,” Pelham said about the ways he promotes his business.
But he’s not a man who enjoys sitting behind a counter hours at a time.
This is a man who battled tonsil cancer in 2006. More than 35 radiation treatments later, he came out with a clean bill of health.
He comes to work early and leaves late, and for three to five hours a day, he operates a front-end loader – what he described as a labor of love.
The best part of running this business, he said, is dealing with people.
"I have guys come in here and get something and they say, ‘I remember coming in here with my dad,'" he said.
Pelham recalled that he had one guy who said when he was young, he came in here to get a front end for a '57 Chevy, and it cost him $150.
“Cars, man, they’ve changed," he said. "Used to be you’d hit a tree and hardly bend it. Today, you hit one and it totals it. They’re just throwaways. They just scrap ’em and go buy something else."
Ironically, this country gentleman, who can retrieve practically any car part you’re searching for, has had no luck in finding the truck of his dreams.
“I been looking for a ’58 Chevy pick-up that I could repair because that’s the year I started,” Pelham said.
And today, the Auto Salvage King is still searching.