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Friday, December 4, 2009

Joe Canepari and Southern Motors

Posted By on Fri, Dec 4, 2009 at 2:49 PM

In the December issue of Memphis magazine (on newsstands NOW!), I listed some questions that I hadn't been able to answer — not without going to more trouble, I thought, than they were worth. One reader asked what I knew about the Southern Motors Cadillac dealership that was operated by a fellow named Joseph Canepari. I managed to turn up a photo of Canepari (and here's another one), but that was it.

Well, it turns out that information about Southern Motors really wouldn't have been that hard to obtain. All I needed to do was open up the pages of the telephone book, because Joseph Canapari Jr. — yes, the man's son — lives in Memphis, and he sent an email telling quite a bit about Southern Motors. Here's what he told me:

"As I remember it, Southern Motors was started sometime after the repeal of prohibition by my uncle, Lawrence Canepari, an immigrant from Bassignana, Italy. He made his money during prohibition by — guess what — the production and sale of illegal whiskey. The company sold Buick, Oldsmobile, Cadillac, and LaSalle automobiles. Lawrence died in the mid-fifties and my father, Joe Canepari, bought the dealership. At the time he had Oldsmobile and Cadillac, and later dropped Oldsmobile and became exclusively Cadillac.

"I have a company photograph from 1955 showing 88 employees. I remember when the new models were shown for the first time each year. The flower arrangements that accompanied them were breathtaking by anyone's standards. The company sold to a lot of the rock-and-rollers of the day: Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Mr. Sam Phillips from down at Sun Studios, but by far our most famous client was Elvis Presley. His 3:00 a.m. shopping sprees many times left the new car department empty, and likely as not you'd read a few days later where he gave them all away.

"He, like my Father, apparently never forgot his roots. All the major car companies were 'down on Union' back then: Hoehn Chevrolet, Hull-Dobbs Ford, Chip Barwick Chevrolet, and Schilling Lincoln-Mercury. I believe Pryor Olds was on Poplar, maybe in the 400 or 500 block. Everything was downtown. It was a very exciting time. All the dealerships brought a tremendous amount of traffic down there and they stayed open until 9:00 p.m. All the car lot lights lit up that whole end of the city."

Thanks for the information, Joe. Yes, I can definitely remember all the car dealerships along Union, and the strings of lightbulbs that sparkled over the rows of new cars.

I managed to find this advertisement for Southern Motors in the back of a 1948 telephone directory, back when they were still selling Oldsmobiles. I've asked Joe Jr. if he has any photos of the dealership; if he does, I'll post them as well.



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