Car Czar

Four-wheeled neighbors share Chuck Woodall's home on Front Street.

On a march afternoon, drivers along Front Street pause and stare when an unusual vehicle pulls out of a garage and putters to the curb. Behind the wheel of the spindly looking, all-black 1925 Model T Ford is Chuck Woodall, owner of Front Street Vintage Auto Storage, which opens this month. "This [car] is unlike anything you'll find today," he says, pointing out the vehicle's unusual controls, including a throttle mounted on the steering wheel and a bewildering mix of foot pedals and hand levers. "But it is certainly a neat old car, and I drive it regularly to keep it tuned up."

Woodall doesn't own the Ford, or any of the half dozen other cars currently stored at 477 South Front. Instead, he maintains the cars for their owners — seemingly endless work that includes cleaning, painting, checking tires, charging batteries, and performing all sorts of other maintenance. "I keep them cleaned up, gassed up, and ready to go," he says. "And that's a lot of work. You don't even take today's cars to the dealers for the first 60,000 miles or so, but with older cars maintenance was a regular thing." The 84-year-old Ford, for example, has an oil can clipped to the engine, and the owner had to fill oil cups mounted on wheel and engine bearings before every trip.

Woodall points to a beautiful cream-colored Packard, gleaming with luxury-car features, including twin sets of musical horns. On this March afternoon, a push of the horn button brings forth little more than a meek squawk from the car. "Part of the service includes keeping all the gadgets working, and one thing I'll do is tune all the horns on this car so it sounds the way it's supposed to."

Opening the garage is Woodall's way of following his heart — when it almost failed him and he had bypass surgery at the age of 42.

"I had always loved cars and loved working with my hands," he says, so he found jobs at dealerships around the Mid-South. But he eventually got promoted into management positions, "where I found myself repairing problems with people, not cars. I didn't like it, and my doctor told me I needed to lower the stress level in my life, so this was it."

The garage venture came about when a friend asked if Woodall could rescue his "high school car" — a 1938 Nash that had seen better days. Woodall refurbished the car from bumper to bumper and decided there was a need in Memphis for his services. Word-of-mouth soon brought him other customers. In addition to the Nash, Front Street Vintage Auto Storage currently houses the 1925 Ford, a 1939 Packard, a 1957 Thunderbird, a 1970 Datsun 1600 convertible, a 1987 Corvette, and even a couple of motorcycles.

"We presently have room for 16 cars, but as the need arises I may add lifts for more," says Woodall. "I've already got 10 more people wanting to bring their cars here." Monthly storage costs begin at $400, depending on what the customer needs.

The front room of the old building, constructed in 1920 as a cotton warehouse and most recently home to an engine rebuilding firm, is a large open space with high ceilings and track lighting that Woodall plans to use as an art gallery — called Gallery 477 after the address on South Front Street.

"Since we're in the South Main Historic District, I knew the city council primarily wanted shops and galleries in this area," says Woodall. "I didn't want any complaints from neighbors, so I thought I'd use part of the building to hold vintage cars and another part of the building to host art exhibitions. I think it will be an interesting mix."

The old building is also a residence. Woodall lives in spacious quarters on the second floor, with a spiral staircase leading to a rooftop deck. "So I'm here all the time if customers need anything," he says, "and they have 24-hour access to their vehicles anyway."

Woodall pulls a fabric cover off the '57 T-Bird to admire its new "dusty rose" paint job, glances at the other cars under his care, and smiles: "You know, this is my one true love."

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