Regular readers of my COAL series will know by now that I spent some time working for JC Whitney in Chicago. Given how deeply this brand is ingrained with US car culture, I figured I would share my unique insider’s perspective on the company, especially of its downfall (yes, I know that technically JC Whitney is still around, but not really, as you shall see).
While I normally dislike quoting Wikipedia in my posts, I will take some liberties here, since much of the Wikipedia article on JC Whitney was authored by yours truly. JC Whitney began as a scrap metal yard on Chicago’s south side, formed by Lithuanian immigrant Israel Warshawsky, who came to the US to escape religious persecution. Warshawsky named the company JC Whitney in order to give the company a less foreign-sounding name.
While Israel did alright for himself, things really started to pick up when his son Roy Warshawsky joined the business in 1934. Possibly inspired by the success of fellow Chicago mail-order giant Sears and Roebuck, it was Roy’s idea to expand the business beyond Chicago by entering the burgeoning mail-order catalog business.
Initially, he started promoting the business with classified ads in magazines like Popular Science and Popular Mechanics. Many of these ads are available in the magazine archives at Google Books, which I’ve sprinkled throughout my post.
The business really hit its stride in the 1950s. The ads eventually blossomed from 4 liners in the classified section to full-page spreads. With the widespread distribution of its now iconic catalog, JC Whitney was well on its way to becoming an institution.
Ah, the JC Whitney catalog: The pulp paper, the dense pages with tiny print, the minimalist line drawings. It is an interesting window into the automotive zeitgeist of the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed, these decades were the heyday of JC Whitney.
At the time, JC Whitney still sold a lot of what we would later call “hard parts.” These are typically replacement items like alternators, brakes, body panels, and even complete engines, as shown in the ad above. Almost always made of steel, hard parts are expensive to ship, and have a relatively low profit margin.
But of course, it is not the hard parts that made JC Whitney famous, but rather all those wild, wacky accessories. Often made of cheap materials like fabric or plastic, accessories are cheap to ship, and in later years were manufactured inexpensively in China. Some of our most profitable accessories had gross selling margins upwards of 50%, and sometimes more.
Whether these gimmicks worked or not was almost beside the point. I’m sure deep down not many people expected paint on whitewalls to look as good and last as long as the real thing. They were selling the dream that Joe Lunchpail could have whitewall tires just like his snooty neighbors.
Whenever manufacturers added new styling, technology, or safety features, JC Whitney was always right behind to give wannabes in older rides the new car look, whether it is the 1958 quad-headlight look for your 1957 car, or a third brakelight for your pre-1986 ride.
Indeed, with their eclectic product mix and low-budget outré, JC Whitney had something for everyone, and was able to bridge several otherwise non-overlapping automotive subgenres:
- The hardscrabble, down on their luck kinds, who need to keep their jalopy running with minimal cash outlay. After all, who else would need a VW hand starter?
- Those who wanted to accessorize their car with styling cues and features of more expensive cars.
- Those who wanted to individualize and customize their cars.
All were welcome under the JC Whitney tent, where truly there was something for everyone. Income inequality? Not here. At JC Whitney, everyone can have a third brakelight or continental kit on their car.
And so it went, for several decades. Cracks began to show in the facade, as the combined forces of rising gas prices, primitive electronics, and emissions controls began to conspire to make it more difficult for the average owner to work on their car, a trend that continues into the present day. Indeed, while researching this article, I discovered that JC Whitney filed for Chapter XI bankruptcy in 1979, a fact not well known even to the employees of the company. Obviously, they were able to successfully reorganize their debt, but these were the first hints of trouble.
By the 1980s and 1990s, the lower-margin hard parts began to disappear from the catalogs, replaced by an increasingly chintzy assortment of cheap (but profitable) Chinese made accessories, as the ad from 1992 above indicates. The tiny print and homespun line art were still there, but many of the products were useless junk.
Roy Warshawsky retired from the business in 1991, and died in 1997. Roy’s last surviving sister sold the company in 2002 to Riverside Capital, a private equity investment firm. At this point, JC Whitney was no longer a family-owned company, but for the time being was still Chicago-based. Although details of the transaction were never made public, informed speculation around the office was that the sale was for somewhere around the $60 million figure, for what that the time was a company with $170 million in sales. This was already down from peak sales volumes north of $200MM in the 90’s.
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