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Wheels of Fortune
They Could Have Driven On. But the Brothers Stopped and That Made All the Difference.

By Phil McCombs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 30, 2000; Page C01

Three brothers were driving home one winter night in 1979 when they saw something beside the road that would change their lives forever.

The Jackson boys--Tom, Paul, Carl--had left church and were piloting their father's old Dodge Coronet along Washington's Southwest Freeway rather carefully, because a blizzard had just come through. Great dirty snowbanks lined the highway, and it was pocked with wheel-eating potholes.

Everywhere they looked, gleaming like gems in the headlights, lay hubcaps.

Hundreds of them.

The boys parked. Risking their lives on the busy road in a freezing rain, they began picking them up.

Of course, this isn't really about hubcaps--not entirely, anyway. It's largely about spirit, the great joyful soaring prototypically American spirit of enterprise that abandons the safe places and the dictates of the fathers and ventures forth, Goes West, goes for broke, baby, because as Helen Keller once said, life is either a great adventure or it is nothing at all.

And family. The Jackson boys belong to one of those sprawling upwardly mobile Catholic conglomerates--11 siblings coming of age in the tumultuous 1960s and '70s in Prince George's County under the eagle eyes of a very proper mother and an erudite father who managed NASA satellites and deep-space probes, wrote about the ionosphere in scientific journals, and probably hadn't imagined a son as proprietor of . . .

Hubcap Heaven.

The standard lecture at the dinner table--where each night space scientist John Edmond Jackson would introduce a suitably heady topic for discussion--was that if you didn't study hard, you'd end up working in Joe's garage.

Now Tommy, the youngest son, owns the damn thing.

And it's no small potatoes, either. With three Maryland and Virginia retail outlets, plus nationwide wholesale and mail order operations, Hubcap Heaven today has become one of the largest wheeler-dealers in the Mid-Atlantic region, selling well over 100,000 hubcaps, wheels, tires and accessories annually.

This seems surprising, somehow--despite the dreamy, iconic hubcap heavens that drift as subtly and powerfully as Miss American Pies through the wretched interstices of our road-raged brains. Learned tomes may be penned and university courses taught on the building of small business empires . . .

But out of hubcaps?

A Pothole Kind of Guy

You'd never guess by the look of him--cool glance, leather motorcycle jacket, thick black locks tumbling to broad shoulders--that Thomas J. Jackson, 41, is the 14-hour-a-day, six-day-a-week workaholic who ram-rodded Hubcap Heaven's expansion from youthful lark to megabucks enterprise.

"I just was always interested in cars," he explains mildly, green eyes scanning the showroom floor of his large, immaculate main store on Route 450 just off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.

A scattering of customers move among bright rows of hubcaps, center caps, trim rings, aluminum wheels, steel wheels and tires. Signs point the way to Chrysler, Plymouth, Dodge, Chevy, Ford, Lincoln, Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mazda, Buick, VW, Olds. A pair of elegant Rolls caps hangs on the wall. Keyboard-punching clerks take phone orders.

"I'm looking for my Dodge Ram," a big guy tells Tom, who breaks from the interview to serve a customer. He is Walter Smith, a steam engineer with a big pickup he wants to "jazz up."

"Is it a full-size? You want the chrome wheels?" Tom asks, consulting books and computer files.

They talk. "Gonna run you about $600," Tom concludes. They walk deep into the showroom to look at a sample from among hundreds of wheels lining the walls.

"I have the center caps," Smith explains.

"Then we can knock off $60," Tom says. "That would be $540."

They stand there, silent, the way guys do when considering questions of great moment. Finally Smith says, "Okay, I'll know in the next couple of weeks."

Jeff Thornton is there because his Mazda lost a hubcap to a pothole. Bernadette Dorsey needs two hubcaps for her Geo Prism because she scraped one side of the car hard against a curb. Victor Birdwell needs his Mazda caps repainted. Paul Withers plunks down $21 cash for a hubcap for his Ford F150 pickup. "I don't know what happened to it," Birdwell laments. "It just disappeared one day."

Tom leads the way through his warehouse to the back lot--an expanse of sheds, dumpsters, a mobile hubcap-display rack for classic car shows. Scattered and stacked on the pavement, 8,000 hubcaps gleam in the morning sun. Many are Smithsonian-grade rarities from the '50s and '60s that Tom's agents peddle at car shows.

"This is a very valuable pile," Tom enthuses, holding up specimens from a '59 Edsel and a '58 Dodge Lancer. At his feet glitters the familiar gaudy elegance of old wire Cadillac caps. "There's a spinner off a '65 Falcon!" (A spinner is a hubcap with three protruding chrome knobs.)

In the early days of the automobile, hubcaps began as simple grease caps--bell-shaped covers in which the axle grease was packed. Then, as vehicles and their wheels grew in size in the 'teens and '20s, manufacturers got the idea of covering the ugly wheels with aluminum and stainless-steel disks. The carmakers began stamping their logos on these early caps.

Through the '30s and '40s, hubcaps became more elaborate. By the '50s, the full-blown gadgety hubcap had blossomed with spinners and flipper bars and those great old four-bar Dodge caps that the California low-riders are so crazy about today, according to Ken Gross, director of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.

By the early 1990s, however, a new trend began to develop: the elimination of hubcaps. Cadillacs, Buicks, Lincolns and other high-end cars have shifted to spiffy aluminum wheels that don't need hubcaps to have an elegant, modern look. They also weigh less than steel wheels.

In addition, they cost a lot more--so Tom welcomes the trend. He can sell a fancy reconditioned aluminum Volvo wheel--with no hubcap--for $175, and have plenty of takers because the same item, new at a dealer's, runs maybe $400.

"Even rich people have their ouch point," he quips.

By contrast, he doesn't make as much on a less-expensive car like a Toyota Camry, some of which still use the old wheel-and-hubcap combination, with his reconditioned wheels selling for $50 and the caps for $35.

Not only do hubcaps get knocked off, but wheel rims--whether steel or aluminum--can be bent by plunging into a pothole. The expensive aluminum wheels are especially prone to damage, Tom says, because tire sidewalls for these are often made smaller to improve handling--that is, there's less protective rubber between pothole and wheel.

Indeed, Tom may be the only guy in Washington with a truly nuanced and almost joyful appreciation of the powers of the lowly pothole.

"The pothole season generally lasts two or three weeks after a snowstorm," he explains. "Four years ago we had that big storm and the snow stayed on the ground. The plows never got out, there were potholes everywhere. That was a fantastic pothole season!

"We were hoping to get a big bonanza of potholes this year, but it wasn't quite as good as anticipated. I think the big thaw we had kind of derailed it. I think they were too efficient cleaning up the roads, too.

"We're always praying for snow. We can't wait for winter."

Whatever the trend in hubcaps and wheels, Tom, the consummate businessman, is moving with it. In fact, he's just made a major new acquisition.

A North Carolina junkyard.

"I always wanted to own a salvage yard," he says brightly. "Right now I'm just dealing with one small part of the car.

"Imagine having all of the car!"

Going With the Flow

Tom was 21 that winter night in '79 when they picked up the hubcaps.

"As kids, we'd collected bottles for the penny deposit," he recalls, "or we'd go on the golf course and find lost balls. So when we saw those hubcaps we said to each other, 'They gotta be worth some money! We should go back and get 'em.' It was just one of those things you do, like an Easter egg hunt."

They filled the trunk and went home and came back with their mother's van and practically filled that. The same night in the basement rec room they ran the hubcaps through a dishwasher and laid the sparkling disks in rows on the floor. There were about 400.

"We had no idea what to charge," Tom says, "so we priced them by eyeshot, just completely off the top of our heads--depending on how elaborate or interesting they looked."

A Caddy cap was $20, a Ford $7.

As the boys debated how to sell them, their father watched and listened with interest. A supportive parent, John Edmond Jackson was also a professional and an intellectual who hoped his children would attend college and follow him into white-collar careers.

Educated in France and at George Washington University, he'd met his future wife in Washington during World War II. Louise Marie was working in a government office, and John Edmond was in the Navy doing scientific research. They married in 1944, and he went on to study captured German V-2 rockets and, in 1958, join NASA at its inception.

A few days after the big hubcap haul, Jean Marie, the youngest of the 11 kids and who worked weekends as a cashier at Sam's Car Wash on nearby Branch Avenue, got her boss to let the brothers sell hubcaps to drivers waiting in line.

"We set up right beside the car wash," Tom remembers, "the perfect, ultimate spot to be selling hubcaps!

"It was the first nice weekend after the snowstorm, and the line must have been a mile long. It ran all the way down the hill to my parent's house, and every third car was missing hubcaps!"

A business was born.

They decided to go with it. Continuing to scavenge on major thoroughfares, the brothers at first rented a lot near the car wash and conducted business on weekends.

Then they moved across Branch Avenue, setting up a trailer and expanding sources of supply. They bought hubcaps in bulk from junkyards, sometimes acquiring entire collections.

Finally, the brothers moved into a building on Old Silver Hill Road just off Branch Avenue--the original Hubcap Heaven site, still operating today. Carl ran the business until becoming a stockbroker in 1987, when Tom took over. Paul has remained a partner throughout.

They never stopped having fun.

In the early days, they'd found a discarded robot dummy that looked like R2D2, painted "Bob" on it and set it up out front with a little two-way radio inside.

"Whenever anyone would drive up, one of my uncles would be in the trailer talking on the radio, saying, 'Hi, this is Bob, can I help you?' " recalls Michael John Cushman, 33, son of the Jacksons' second child, Michele, and a management consultant. "The customer would be surprised, and 'Bob' would go on and say something like, 'Ma'am, the Chrysler Cordoba hubcaps are on your left--with the gold coin in the middle.' "

As a teenager, Michael worked in the store weekends and found it "a big confidence booster. I learned a lot about entrepreneurship."

His sister, Christine Cushman, formerly a congressional aide and now studying to be a physician's assistant, recalls how she "used to play down there in the lot, and the stacks of hubcaps were taller than me. It was great fun."

She still remembers the little radio ditty her uncles used:

Hubcaps, spinners, wire spokes . . .

C'mon down to Hubcap Heaven

Where Uncle Paul loves all the folks.

A Family Tradition

Louise Jackson, 78, still lives in the house where she raised her kids down the hill from Sam's Car Wash and the original Hubcap Heaven. John Edmond died in 1997. Their gang of 11 "little darlings"--her term--has produced 26 grandchildren so far and most of the gang have been involved with Hubcap Heaven one way or another. They all have stories to tell.

"My brother Paul, he met his wife at Hubcap Heaven and they're still married after 14 years," says Jean Marie (now Stein), currently retired from bond trading on Wall Street to raise her kids in New York state. "She came in with a girlfriend. When my brother Carl gave the toast at their wedding, he said, 'This was truly a match made in heaven--Hubcap Heaven.' "

One time Carl was riding his motorcycle, Tom recalls, "and pulled up next to a Rolls, and it was missing a hubcap! So Carl flagged him down and said he had the same color Rolls hubcap in stock. The guy came back to the store and bought it."

The Jacksons' oldest, John T. Jackson, 55--he works for NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center keeping "30 to 40 satellites up in the sky"--says he didn't have much to do with Hubcap Heaven himself, "but it was kind of neat to watch them grow. It was wild."

But not unexpected, not in that family.

"It seems like everyone in the family has their hands in some kind of business," John explains. "We have people on Wall Street wheeling and dealing in stocks. Paul runs motorcycle swap meets all over the East Coast. Michele had a little consignment place called the Country Closet."

Andrew, the fourth child and who now works for Tom in North Carolina, "used to be a Harley expert--he had his house filled with used Harleys."

As for John himself: "Besides working for NASA, I've had a local band business on the side--the Yellow Brick Road. We play little clubs around town, wedding receptions. It's the thrill of working before the public, being your own boss, calling your own shots.

"Nobody in this family is a shrinking violet."

What did John Edmond Jackson ultimately think of all this?

"My father was a very educated man," John explains. "He was a leading scientist for NASA, taught calculus at the University of Maryland. He was brilliant, and very big on education. He wanted us to be like him. He thought it would be neat to have us all be scientists."

Although everyone didn't follow in Dad's footsteps, "everybody became free thinkers," John continues, "and followed their own paths. We all expect each other to be doing well, and we help each other. None of the other businesses grew as much as Tom's, and we're all very proud of him."

From the beginning, Louise Jackson recalls, Tom "was interested in cars. . . . We always wished he would do a little more educational-type things, but . . . what can you do?"

And it wasn't too long before "we were amazed by its success," she says of Hubcap Heaven. "My husband was not the type to get into something like that, but he did accept it. He was surprised when they did well, and he always patted them on the back."

Tom recalls he hadn't wanted to go to college and "waste their money on something that was of no use to me." Instead, after high school, he'd taken "a nowhere job." After a year, his father gave him a brochure from a tech school. Tom got his degree, then worked as a Mercedes technician for eight years before finally answering his true calling.

The Call of the Hubcap.

A Sign

With Hubcap Heaven booming, and now a prospering junkyard to tend, it's hard for Tom to stay on top of every detail.

For example, some of the big red neon letters are on the blink on his original storefront. At dusk, all you see standing tall against the darkening sky is "H--CA- HEAV--."

"I was telling Tom yesterday that a couple lights are out," his mother says. "It says HEAV, but I don't know what the rest of it says. He said he'd get someone to fix it."

Where'd they get that Hubcap Heaven name, anyway?

It's not entirely clear. Somehow they just came up with it, and it seemed socko. Maybe it was because the boys had just been to church when they found all those hubcaps in the first place.

Anyway, Tom's sure of one thing. He never set out to be a hubcap tycoon.

"It wasn't really a dream of mine. I'd gone to school to be a mechanic, and that hubcap thing just happened by the roadside. It was just something crazy that happened to me!

"It was totally out of the sky."

© Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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