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Rick's Garage -- Charlotte-based dealer, race team owner, car collector visits Charleston Hendrick outlets to hand out awards

A fledgling car dealer was scouting sites in 1980 locally to expand his business, trying to build on a promising start in Charlotte and in-roads in Columbia.

He first put an offer on land in Mount Pleasant. Then a knowledgeable Lowcountry businessman volunteered, "Why don't you look on the other side of the bridge?" The new Cooper River Bridges were decades away, the area was just starting to grow and easy-to-reach West Ashley was expanding its auto trade.

The young businessman, also briefly a stock car driver, took the expert's advice and landed a spot on the Savannah Highway. The dealer? Rick Hendrick. He snapped up a Honda franchise, which 37 years later goes by Hendrick Honda. Today, Hendrick Automotive Group sells 12 brands at dealerships in Charleston and North Charleston. Rick Hendrick would go on to build a privately-held company of 103 car stores nationwide, own a NASCAR racing team with the likes of Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. as drivers, inspire in the Tom Cruise vehicle "Days of Thunder" and build a fortune estimated at $1 billion.

The entrepreneur visited the Charleston area this week to single out three local dealerships - Hendrick BMW for the Center of Excellence award, Hendrick Lexus Charleston for Elite of Lexus and Honda for the President's Award. He also honored employees for long-time service. "We're just celebrating," Hendrick said in a interview Tuesday in Charleston.

"The Carolinas seem to have probably some of the strongest numbers," Hendrick said. Notably, Charlotte and Raleigh-Durham in North Carolina and greater Charleston in South Carolina stand out. "We love Charleston," he said.

Hendrick covered a range of topics, including the present state of the auto industry, stock car racing and his lineup of 300 vintage and one-of-a kind cars in his Charlotte showplace, which also includes 100 guitars signed by or belonging to famed musicians.

The 67-year-old businessman visited Charleston just as the Hendrick dealerships, particularly on Savannah Highway, are undergoing a transformation. Hendrick Honda doubled its size while moving across the highway into a new showroom this year; the company opened a large service center in the former Kmart building last year; Mini of Charleston located to a new store in the past two years; and Volvo of Charleston will move into a prototype building on the former Honda site this summer.

Volvo's glass-dominated showroom comes as the Swedish-Chinese carmaker builds a $500 million Ridgeville factory to manufacture the S60 sedan, the company first car plant in North America.

According to Hendrick, the close timing of the Volvo plant unveiling next year and the carmaker getting a new Charleston building in August are more than coincidental.

"I think a little was the timing, a lot was the plant," he said. "When you see the jobs they bring" -- at least 2,000 -- a lot of people will be driving Volvos and (need) a place to service them. If you look at what BMW does with (supplier) plants spreading around it, it's huge." Hendrick was referring to the BMW auto plant in Upstate South Carolina, which opened 23 years ago and has pumped untold millions of dollars into the state economy. It presently builds many of the carmaker's X series SUV lineup.

Similarly, "We want to be the premier Volvo dealership in Charleston," Hendrick said. Executives, when they visit the car plant, "they want to see the store," he said. "Our job is to make it a showplace."

Almost lost in the Lowcountry expansion, Hendrick Automotive Group this spring unload its two Hyundai outfits in metro Charleston to a private dealer, who merged the outlets into the North Charleston store on Rivers Avenue and renamed it Hyundai of Charleston.

The company mogul said the Hendrick ventures on Savannah Highway were "just out of space. Parking is so tight (for employees)," he says. "The Honda store exploded. Sales were up 20-30 percent."

Honda will convert the neighboring Hyundai locale into a pre-owned car center, he confirmed.

Hendrick launched the Charleston investment during an up-and-down time in the U.S. auto business. The industry set an all-time high in 2016 with 17.6 million new cars sold. This winter and spring, sales dropped precipitously, but the latest seasonally adjusted annual rate (SAAR) put the year-end estimate in the high 16 million sales to 17.1 million, he siad.

The Hendrick automotive stable, prominent in the Southeast and in such places as Kansas City and Texas, splits its sales about equally between high-line models, domestic and imports. Charlotte is Hendrick's stronghold, but the Lowcountry comes on strong. "The mix of franchises from Chevrolet to BMW and Lexus is almost a copy (of Charlotte)," he said.

For more information and photos, go to www.postandcouriercom/automotive.

Reach Jim Parker at 843-937-5542 or jparker@postandcourier.com.

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