ST. PETERSBURG — Sandwiched between two bigger car lots, Ace Motors and Garage is pretty unassuming. The owner, Clyde J. Walters Sr., likes it that way.
The property, less than a half-acre, is packed with a main office — which was once a house — a three-lift garage and an old car paint room no longer in use. The lot can hold up to 40 cars, but Walters said his inventory averages about 15.
It's an old-school operation: No glass walls or buffed-up floors for a showroom. Walters doesn't wear a suit and there's no computer at his desk, though he keeps one in another, private room to do background checks.
"When you arrive, it's kind of unimposing," customer Brian Wright of Winter Springs said. "And when you step inside, it's like you walk back in time. His establishment slowed me down; it wasn't one of these quick, polished, slick settings where you're going to get bamboozled."
Mike Fogerty, 59, who has known Walters for 30 years, seconds that point.
"I've bought motorcycles, cars, trucks from him and traded all those to him also," Fogerty of St. Petersburg said. "He's more than a car salesman — he's more of a friend. I treat Clyde more as a grandfather-type thing, not a used car salesman or owner of a car lot."
For 48 years, Walters, 88, has maintained his business at the same location on 46th Avenue N, just west of 66th Street. It originally started out as a motorcycle store called Florida Cycle Inc. That was toward the end of his 20-year career with the motorcycle division of the St. Petersburg Police Department that ended in 1972. Before that, he served four years in the U.S. Navy. Walters switched to selling cars after retiring from the police force.
He keeps inventory low to reduce risk and overhead, in contrast to the bigger used car lots along the 66th Street corridor. Walters owns everything, with monthly expenses largely reduced to utilities, as-needed staff and costs associated with maintaining the cars.
"I'm a one-man show — I come out here for therapy every day," Walters said, half-jokingly.
He sells 80 to 100 automobiles a year, he said. Typically, June is his worst month, but this year it was his best so far, with eight sales. He sold only one car in July.
"I'm not a numbers guy," he said bluntly. "There's a lot of dealers out there with bad reputations. I want to help people, not take advantage of them. Consequently, I don't have any complaints."
(A check with the Pinellas County Consumer Protection Department revealed no complaints against Ace Motors.)
"I have generations and generations of people who want to buy cars from me because people don't trust anyone else."
Referrals and return business have been at the heart of Walters' customer base, he said.
Brian Wright wound up at Ace Motors after his ex-wife told him about it, citing the cars on Walters' lot as reliable and reasonably priced.
"Everything she told me was actually understated," Wright, 53, said. "What is most important about him that I found is he understands people's afflictions and he will work them. … His integrity matched with his compassion for understanding people."
Wright talked about his ex-wife, who fell behind on her payments after being laid off from her last job. Walters worked with her on keeping the car until she later found another job, according to both Wright and Walters.
On the other hand, Walters is not afraid to take back a car if customers don't pay up. He makes everyone sign a document stating a repo man has authority to go onto a customer's property to reacquire the car without notice if no payment has been received within 90 days.
That soft-but-tough mentality was something well-honed while he was a cop.
"Maybe I brought the cop mentality with me into this business," Walters said.
His office is a kind of museum of St. Petersburg history, with the walls adorned with decades worth of mementos, family items, old black-and-white pictures — many of Walters and his police brethren standing next to one another in posed, formal shots of the St. Petersburg police motorcycle division through the years — along with all manner of trinkets and knickknacks.
There's even a cat that will greet customers at the door and loyally sit by Walters' side at his desk. Though officially named "Fluffy," Walters refers to him as his "mouser."
Some of the more interesting bits of history hanging on his office walls are clippings of Walters featured in newspapers during his law enforcement career.
"I was a prima donna, you know, you get kind of carried away with what you're doing," he said. "I had kind of an attitude, I guess you could say."
A framed, full-page story about him from the now-defunct Evening Independent hangs on one wall, with pictures of him standing next to his police motorcycle. There are other clippings of him, both in the Independent and the St. Petersburg Times, which is now the Tampa Bay Times.
And he's got plenty of stories. There's the one about a guy he was trying to pull over for a traffic violation. The driver chose instead to make a run for it and was able to get away. But Walters got the license number, later paying the man a visit at his residence. What did Walters do? He simply gave him a verbal warning.
Walters recalled a period when he briefly switched to a patrol car — a 1965 Dodge Dart.
"Man, that was a real hopped-up car," he recalled, noting the motor–pool mechanics employed by the force complained because he was wearing out a set of tires every three months. "God, it was fast."
Walters said he had to defuse a particularly tense day during the 1968 sanitation workers strike in St. Petersburg, when crowds started amassing. Another cop rode on the hood of a patrol car with a submachine gun in his hands, threatening to ignite an already volatile situation. As Walters tells it, the chief told him to get that officer out of there before he made things worse.
Walters has two years left on his current dealer's license, and he's thinking that might be the time to close shop. He has been approached by many people wanting to purchase his property — twice by a large convenience store chain he would not name.
"I'm getting older and I do tend to forget things from time to time," Walters said. "My kids want to spend more time with me. Physically, there's nothing wrong with me, but I'm starting to think about retiring. I haven't made any concrete solutions."
Fogerty, the customer, said if Walters does close down, no other lots like his will replace it.
"He'll give me a car to test drive for a week and say, 'If you don't like it, bring it on back,' " Fogerty said. "No one does that anymore."