If you spend any significant amount of time in Fayetteville, you may have seen a man with a broad smile and a shock of white hair driving around in the prettiest 1959 pink Cadillac convertible it's ever been your privilege to lay eyes on, as sleek and shiny and pristine as it was the day it rolled off the line in Detroit.
Or you may have seen the same man, lanky, loose-limbed and laughing, on the green at the Fayetteville Country Club golf course -- maybe driving one of his custom-built golf carts like the one once owned by Jackie Gleason or the one with a television attached -- wearing an outrageous pair of golf pants with a colorful pattern.
Through Others’ Eyes
“My wife and I were watching the Barrett-Jackson auction on television, and I said, ‘We need to look for Parker,’ and she said, ‘Well, what is he wearing?’ I said, ‘Probably the most outrageous pair of John Daly golf pants he can find — you’ll see his smile or his golf pants, one of the two.’ So they did a highlight of his car, which was incredible, and I’m sitting there looking at this shiny, shiny bumper, and I saw his reflection in the bumper! He had those red and white golf pants on and a big smile on his face. It didn’t matter what the car brought, that was worth about a million dollars right there.” — Farmington Mayor Ernie Penn
“I think other than hard work and being smart, his other key to success is his engaging personality — he’s kind of a delight to be around.” — Judge William A. Storey
“He’s very outgoing — I think most people that meet him figure that out really quickly. When you meet him, he’ll probably have a pair of those loud pants — he’s always going to wear something flashy. His favorite saying is that he’s ‘good looking and lucky.’” — Ben Schlegel
Or surely you've seen this man working at his used car lot at 1827 N. College Ave. in Fayetteville, waving to friends speeding by who slow down long enough to yell, "Hey, Parker!" out the window. ("If you call him 'Robert' or 'Bob', people won't know who you're talking about," says his close friend, Farmington Mayor Ernie Penn. "Maybe his mother says 'Robert,' but everyone else knows him as 'Parker.'") You can't miss the lot: It has a prime placement on the city's main thoroughfare, with its cardboard cutout of Elvis gyrating before a microphone in the window and, on any given week, a gorgeous vintage car on display. This week, it's a mysterious-looking black 1959 Edsel Ranger taking the place of honor on the lawn, the kind of car you might see in a 1960s movie that refers to spies as "spooks."
Fact is, Robert Parker is a larger-than-life, can't-miss character on the local and national classic and antique car scene. He is as adept at selling an older gentleman the 1960s car he's been yearning for since he was a teenager as he is at selling a mom and dad a safe, dependable and practical car for their just-turned 16-year old.
"Two key things in the used car business are trustworthiness and reputation," says Penn. The two men have known each other since their college days, when Penn worked at his dad's Citgo gas station on the south side of Fayetteville, and Parker worked at a car lot on the north side. "Those are the key things that make you successful in the business."
"There's one guy who has traded vehicles with him 23 times," says close friend Ben Schlegel. "I think he's seen in a very good light because he's treated people right."
Key in the ignition
Parker's love for cars was in his blood.
"My mother always said I came out with a car in my hand," says Parker. "I just liked cars from the very beginning."
Born in Benton in 1954, Parker lost no time in cultivating his interest: Family hunting trips to Bald Knob when he was around 10 years old found Parker exploring an old Cadillac graveyard he discovered while his father and brother hunted quail.
"There was this farm out there that a guy let us hunt on," he remembers. "You couldn't see it from the road, but he had probably 40 old Cadillacs -- 1940s and 1950s models. This was back in the 1960s. They were just all piled in there. I would just kind of play with all of those cars."
His first foray into the car business came when he sold go-carts and slot cars while he was in junior high. Slot cars are miniature cars, operated with hand-held controllers, used to race around large race tracks.
"They were really popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s," says Parker. "I used to go to Park Plaza Shopping Center in Little Rock, and I carried two briefcases with my cars in them. I would build the cars and bring them to the mall to sell them. My mom would go shopping, and I would go down to where the race tracks were with my briefcase."
Parker headed off to college at the University of Arkansas, intent on a degree in finance.
"I thought being a banker would be a pretty dignified job," he says. "But after I got up here and hung around for a while, I found out that a banker at that point in time made about $20,000 a year and spent most of that on suits." In fact, Parker quickly discovered that turning his passion into profit would help him make as good -- or better -- a salary than in another "dignified" profession that required a college degree.
"I always had cars for sale in front of my fraternity house," he says. "I would buy the car, spend the afternoon cleaning it, and then sell it in the evening. We had a lot of foreign exchange students coming in, and I sold almost every one of them a car, because I had them sitting right there on campus in front of the fraternity house."
Parker was a popular guy on campus, president of his fraternity, and even served as Gallo Wines "Gallo Man" for a brief six months. The way he tells it, the position was a dream for any college student who enjoyed socializing.
"It was a great job," he says. "You just went around and gave wine parties at the sorority houses. You would go to any liquor store and say, 'I think I want this kind of Gallo wine,' and you signed a ticket. And then you wrote up how much time you spent thinking about it and doing it -- it was a great job, a wonderful job.
"It only lasted six months, though. They decided we weren't a good wine school. We were a good beer school but not a good wine school."
Parker admits that, between his popularity, his booming auto resale business and his duties as the "Gallo Man," his class attendance sometimes suffered. That had no impact on his business success, however, and he started a used car business with a fraternity brother.
"In the mornings, if I didn't have class, I'd go buy cars. Eventually, I quit school. I was within seven hours of graduating and I thought, I could make more than a banker selling cars!"
Shifting to drive
That initial lot would be the first step in what would become a 40-plus year career in automobile sales. Most of those years would be in pre-owned and classic auto sales, though Parker spent a brief period of time working as the general manager at Daryl Hickman Chevrolet in the late 1970s.
"When I got there, they were selling around 24 new Chevrolets a month, and the month that I left, we sold almost 80," says Parker. He says he enjoyed his time working for the large dealership. "The intercom system went through the whole dealership, and I would play the theme song to 'The Lone Ranger' to get people fired up right before we opened."
Still, even as he became more and more successful moving new cars, it was the used car lot that offered him the greatest challenge -- and interest.
"My used car lot's manager's day off was Friday, so Friday was my day to go over and play in the used car lot," says Parker. "His name was Glen Riggins, nicest guy you've ever met. Retired police chief. Just the nicest guy in the world. He was off on Fridays so I would go over, and, if we bid cars, we would be within 50 bucks of each other nine times out of ten. But the tenth? I could be off $3,000 or he could be off $3,000. And of course, if someone came in with a Corvette or something sporty, I would put a lot of money into it, and he wouldn't. So I would trade for something like that one Friday, and he would get it all cleaned up but never put it up front. I would have to wait for the next Friday to put it up front, and we would sell it as soon as I did."
When he bought a 1940 Buick two-door for $750 at an auction he attended with Hickman in the late 1970s, he discovered it was just in his blood, this passion for finding treasures, buffing them up, putting them on display and finding a new home for them. So it wasn't long before he returned to the used and classic car business for good: first at a lot beside the Dew Drop Inn in Springdale, then where the Fayetteville Schlotzsky's is now and, finally, to his current location a little further south at the intersection of Green Acres Road and College Avenue, where he's been since 1985.
What's the appeal of these older cars? Parker says he thinks it's at least partly their callback to a bygone era.
"I think it brings back a better time in America," he muses. "Where everybody said 'Hello' to everybody else. A handshake made a deal. There are a lot of good people out there, but so many people are out for themselves now, but back in that era of time, you helped your neighbor out. If somebody broke down on the side of the road, you helped them. Now, you're scared to stop and try to help somebody.
"And if one of those old cars break down, you can pull over and get under the hood and move a few things around and adjust this or that and start it up, and you just go!"
As Parker's business grew, so did his reach, his place on the national classic car scene and his purchases. Today, in addition to running his lot, he travels the country, sussing out and purchasing rare classic cars. His favorites are the unusual ones: the cars he calls "weird stuff," like the amphibious cars you can drive on land and water (he's sold 15 of those so far), the limited edition 1959 Fiat Jolly, commissioned by the president of Fiat to take on his yacht -- with wicker seats and a fringed awning, it must be one of the cutest cars ever made -- and the Ford Ranger disguised as a beer can.
"It would seat four people, and it had an ice chest and dispensers for mustard and mayonnaise and ketchup," crows Parker, clearly thrilled by the creativity. "The back would open up, and a grill would come out. They had wrapped it just like a Bud Light beer can, and they had calculated how many ounces of beer would be in something that size. It had a 'Born on' date and a pop top."
The unusual vehicle so delighted Parker, he's owned it on three separate occasions.
The right route
Rooting out such treasures takes time, energy and labor. So much labor.
"He's an indefatigable worker, one of the hardest -- if not the hardest -- working person I've ever known," says the Honorable William A. Storey, District Court judge for Fayetteville. He's been doing business with Parker for over 30 years, first buying family cars from him, and later, the classic automobiles both men love so much. "For example, last week, right before Thanksgiving, I stopped by his lot at about a quarter to seven on the way to work -- I needed a mirror fixed -- and there he was. And I know that he probably spends at least 26 weekends out of the year on the road, going to these classic car auctions, and I know that one or two nights a week, he's at other auctions. He's about the hardest working person that I've ever run across."
Not too long ago, he made a bid for 350 classic cars in one collection -- and won.
"The collection belonged to a friend of mine who was killed," says Parker. His friend left the cars to Har-ber Village Museum in Grove, Okla. When the museum didn't have a place to store them, Parker offered up one of his buildings.
"There was a 1957 Corvette that I really wanted, so I bid on all of them," he says. "One day, one of the lawyers calls me and says, 'Do you really want them? Because you're top bidder.' So I bought them all. I sold 220 of them at auction, crushed 90-something that weren't desirable, and I kept a few of them. One of them was a 1977 Delta 88 Indianapolis Pace Car that had 128 miles on it. I sold it at Barrett-Jackson Auction Company, and its [in-house] magazine said, 'For a '77 Delta 88, it brought a tubload of money, but for a car with no miles on it, it was a real bargain.'"
Through the years, his practical experience has left him with a treasure trove of information in his car-focused brain that he can access at a moment's notice.
"It's amazing how much Parker knows," says Penn. "You can ask him a question about any car or any car part that you may need, and he can tell you what interchanges with what vehicles, how many were made -- it's unbelievable for someone to have that much knowledge."
"You can go to his lot and say, 'What's a 1931 Stutz Bearcat worth?'" says Judge Storey. "'Well, what's the condition?' And you tell him the condition, and he says, 'It's worth $87,500.' It's kind of amazing. He has more knowledge of the market for all sorts of cars -- not only classic cars."
His larger-than-life presence, gregarious personality, skill and knowledge have attracted attention from more than one production company looking to capture some of that Parker magic for the television screen. He was in the final running for a show called "Counting Cars" on the History Channel -- but he lost out to an auto restoration company called Count's Kustoms in Las Vegas.
"I'll never forget talking to this lady -- I said to her, 'Now, here's the deal before we get started. I don't have facial hair, and I don't have tattoos.' Because everyone on those shows has facial hair and tattoos. She said, 'That's OK, we heard you were pretty colorful.'"
Once, during a tense bidding war with Chick-fil-A's founder, S. Truett Cathy, over a Duesenberg, Parker had a camera from an auction show in his face. He dropped out when the bidding hit $130,000.
"They're on you and watching you with these cameras," he says. "Finally, when all was said and done, the lady came over to me and said, 'Sir, I know you didn't win, but what were you going to do if you had bought that car?' And I said, "I was going to ride around in it!'
"I still regret not buying that car. That car today is worth a quarter of a million bucks."
Cars, says Parker, are one of the surest investments you can make.
"Right now, money isn't worth anything if you have it in the bank -- if you're making one point on it you're lucky," he notes. "But you can buy an old car and, if you enjoy it and rub on it a little bit and take care of it ... it's a rolling CD is what I call it, because it's money in the bank."
Which is not to say that it's always a sure thing.
"If you don't lose money every once in a while on a car, you're not buying enough cars," says Parker. "You know, sometimes, my guess is not as good as I think. It's volatile. When that happens, you just hope you find that one person who wants the car: 'There's an *** for every seat,' is what I always say."
However, there are some bets that are better than others.
"You can't go wrong at buying a Shelby Mustang almost at any price and any Corvette from 1967 back," he says. "Even if you pay too much, [the value] will catch up."
Parker's love for his profession is still evident, but he laments that the internet has stolen just a bit of the joy from it.
"The internet is not very personable," he says. "The thing that I always enjoy [about selling cars] is that you meet a lot of neat people. And it's fun to sell somebody something. You don't really sell stuff to people anymore. They just order it off the internet. They'll get online, say, 'Well, let's see, I want a Honda Accord and this kind of miles,' and whatever pops up, they'll call on it. I'm not averse to the internet; we sell on the internet. But I've had people come in and buy a car, and it's hard to get a name out of them. They come in and hand a check over and don't say anything else -- they get in the car and leave. That's no fun. Fun is the guy is there, and you've got something priced at $10,000, and he offers you $5,000, and, before it's all said and done, you've sold it to him for $9,500, and you've got your arm around him, and he's happy."
"He wants to slow down a little bit, but I think he enjoys it as much as he did when he was 20 years old," says Penn.
He may not be close to retirement age yet, but Parker says he has a plan of succession.
"My son-in-law works at the car lot and, hopefully, I'll turn it over to him," he says.
And he's pretty sure his grandson, Wyatt, has inherited his passion for the work.
"He worked one auction with me, out there putting 'sold' and 'for sale' signs on cars," he says, a big grin on his face. "The auction starts at nine and goes until four or five in the afternoon. Other than getting something to eat, he was out front with me that whole time. Ten years old. Most kids' attention spans don't last that long."
With any luck, Wyatt will inherit his grandfather's ability to see the potential lurking underneath even the most neglected, rusted out, broken-down specimen of automobile -- the real secret to Parker's success all of these years.
"He's got an eye for it," says Schlegel. "He can see an old rusty car that might look a little rough, but he just does a few things to it and it looks like a million dollars. He calls it 'Parkerizing' it."
"If you can see through the dings and the dingy paint and the bent piece of chrome, you'll realize ... you're looking at a diamond in the rough," says Parker, a smile stretching his face.
NAN Profiles on 12/10/2017
Print Headline: Robert Parker