CHANDLER, AZ — Watch 89-year-old Tex Earnhardt mosey onto the showroom floor, and you witness a transformation. His face brightens up, his gate quickens, he extends a hand, and looks the customer right in the eye.
“Howdy, I’m Tex,” he says to an older couple. “I saw that woman and I had to come over here.”
Without a beat, he turns to the husband, and hits the punch line. “She is the cutest thing, and YOU ain’t bad!”
The well-practiced ice breaker, in combination with folksy charm, is one reason Tex Earnhardt is a household name in the Valley. He still greets customers at his flagship Ford dealership in Chandler.
Most of those customers are astonished – the guy in the ad on top of a bull, actually walks over and says “Howdy Folks!”
“Just being nice to people… that’s how I do it,” he said, in an interview surrounded by his family and closest friends.
I ask him why he still goes to work every day, as he has done for 68 years.
“What the Hell else do I have to do?” he says, to head-shaking laughter in the room.
“You like it?” I ask.
“I don’t like it. I love it.”
It’s hard to imagine a success story so uniquely American as that of Tex Earnhardt.
At age 21, he moved to (what was then) the farming and ranching community of Chandler, Arizona. He somehow convinced Ford to let him have a dealership. As a kid who grew up ranching and always aspired to be a rodeo cowboy, Tex knew his customers.
He sold one truck a month in 1951. Sixty-nine years later, there are 23 Earnhardt dealerships, selling 17 different brands of cars. Nearly all of them remain in the Valley, where Earnhardt remains a dominant name in the car business.
His family says, doing business his way has also meant living life his way.
His trademark phrase, “That Ain’t No Bull” is actually an inside joke for anyone familiar with rodeos and ranching. When he sits on the back of a longhorn, that’s not a bull. It’s a steer. (A bull that’s been fixed.)
Tex has never smoked nor drank. In fact, for years, he was an avid marathon runner. He’s completed more than twenty races, and rarely took a day off.
“He got up every deal on his birthday, and he wouldn’t start his day until he did ten miles,” said his son, Hal.
Tex is notoriously frugal. “You can’t get him a present,” says sons Jim Babe and Hal. “If somebody would get him a present, the first words out of his mouth?”
The rest of the room chimes in, “Take it back.”
His family says Tex has never had a new car, invariably choosing something off the used car lot.
Tex has some interesting quirks. He loves being outside and makes it a point to shower outside, at the Chandler home where he’s lived for six decades.
Does he mind if anyone sees him? “Oh hell no!” he responds.
Tex prides himself on remaining true to the values of the ranching community that gave him his start. He could’ve moved to a mansion in Scottsdale or Paradise Valley. He says he’s just fine tending to the few horses and cattle he still owns.
These days, many of the old stories are told by his children, who told us, Tex has trouble remembering things. His children, grandchildren and even great-grandchildren now work at his dealerships. Each one, starting at the bottom, by washing cars.
Tex says, one of the reasons he still goes to work each day is because it’s the place where he is always surrounded by family.
“I know I can’t stay here forever, and I think about myself,” he says, as the room goes silent.
“Before I go, I’m going to be recognized that I was nice…. Nice guys finish first.”