Exactly 65 years ago this month, the East Valley changed forever with a simple two-part question.
Or as Tex Earnhardt tells it in his smooth South Texas drawl, “In September 1951, I opened a little gas station in Chandler. Ford sent me out here, I never even heard of the place. It was a single pump that you had to manually pump, and a gravel lot. So I’ve only been for here two or three days, and a customer asked me, ‘Is that a new Ford truck, how much is it?’ And I was so new to this I told him that I’d better check.
“Now this was a basic black truck with no radio or anything, but it was $800. And he says, ‘$800? Well, I’d never pay that much for a truck. I'm going to buy a Chevy.’ That night I called my mom and said, ‘I don't think I’m going to like this.’ What’s really amazing is that the same pickup is now $65,000. Of course, you can’t get it without a radio now.”
Tex (he insists on everyone calling him Tex) is sitting just off the lobby of his flagship Ford dealership, instantly recognizable in his signature outfit: checkered Western shirt, blue jeans, boots and a hubcap-sized belt buckle, all in the shadows of a towering cowboy hat. His lean, tanned frame shows little signs of his 85 years of age, fidgeting as if he’d rather be riding his horse, or flying his plane, or chatting with some of these fine folk milling around the showroom, anything other than talking to a reporter about something so boring as his amazing success story.
But still, his smile is warm and genuine, and his swimming-hole-blue eyes sparkle mischievously every time he interrupts his own interview to rope in some unsuspecting soul. “Hey, how are you doing? Come on over here and say hello,” Tex shouts to anyone in earshot, waving over members of his extended Earnhardt family to shoot the breeze, several of whom introduce themselves as decades-long employees, or actual family members.
Of course, everyone who grew up in the East Valley remembers Tex’s sons, Hal and Jim Babe, who appeared in countless commercials alongside their father. But now there’s a whole new generation of Earnhardts working at the family’s 22 dealerships across Arizona and Nevada.
“Dodge, Derby, Bull, Nature, Ace and Wynn are just a few of Tex’s grandkids that all have a major role at the company,” says his longtime marketing director/press wrangler, Vicky Van Dyke. “Tex’s secret is he treat’s everyone like family,” she says. And she should know.
“Vicky’s been working for me for 26 years,” Tex says.
“Growing up in the Rio Grande Valley, right on the Mexican border, all we knew was ranching and rodeo. Tú hablas español? Porque tú necesitas hablar un poquito español, down there. But mom used to send me to church. Now, I didn’t like it because it was 12 miles round trip. But what did stick with me was you gotta be nice to people and treat ’em right.
“Cars are all the same. Wheels are all round. We make mistakes. And frankly sometimes people can be not nice. They will buy a used car and come back the next day and say it’s got scratches on the paint. So my sales guy will say to me, ‘Tex, it already had those scratches when we sold it.’ And I’ll say, ‘What does it cost fifty, a hundred dollars? Just go ahead and fix it.’ What’s that cost compared to our reputation?”
Over the past 65 years that reputation for straight shooting, plus a lifelong competitive streak—“I still ride horses every day I can, still rope with my son, Hal. Just rope a little slower than I used to,” Tex says—helped this struggling former professional rodeo rider grow into one of the nation’s most successful family-owned and operated car dealers. While still based in Chandler, Tex and company have gone from selling a car or two per month—“we had to sell one truck so we could buy the next one,” he says—to selling nearly 50,000 vehicles a year.
Not that Tex is ready to hang up his spurs anytime soon.
“I still feel the same need to go to work every day, still have bills to pay. I’ve been blessed to get up every day and still be able to get around,” he said.
As for Tex’s famously folksy slogan—“And that ain’t no bull!”—that’s been slapped across billboards, and repeated by Tex himself in every TV and radio ad for decades? It all started as a little inside joke, Tex says.
“I was out on the ranch, joking around with some cowboy friends, and one said, ‘Hey Tex, when are gonna stop fooling around on that bull?’ I said, ‘This ain’t no bull, I know because I removed his things not 30 minutes ago.’ And everybody laughed, but it stuck.
“I remember doing live TV ads in the 1960s down at Channel 5 in Phoenix—you had to do it live then, sitting on a real steer right there at the station. I’m sure with the lawyers now you can’t do that no more.”
By now, Tex is getting antsy, but still he continues to humor his interviewer with a mix of aw-shucks responses and charming quips.
“Growing from that little tiny store to now, what, 22? I don’t even know how we got ’em,” Tex says. “I didn’t know anything, then or now. Except that nice guys finish first.”
At that moment, Tex spots his son Hal strolling into the dealership while talking on a massive smartphone. Taller and thicker than his father, Hal holsters the phone in an embossed leather pouch clipped to his belt and flashes that famous Earnhardt smile. Seeing his chance to escape the table he’s been hogtied to for far too long, Tex hops to his feet with the quick, graceful movements of a lifetime rodeo roper, and shouts to his now gray-haired son.
Beckoning Hal over, Tex slaps his back and plants a smooch on his son’s check.
“Hal thinks he’s too old for me to kiss him. Heck, I kiss everybody,” he says, before he spots another familiar face and moseys out into the showroom, slapping backs and shouting hellos the whole way.