(Photos: Ben Carscallen/Jake Steele. Words: Jake Steele)
The building itself is unremarkable, something you could drive past a hundred times and never think twice about. It's surroundings are equally unremarkable: a small rental house on one side, and another uninspired looking warehouse facility on the other. (what happens there, nobody knows) There is nothing to distinguish this particular building, other than the address, “909” hastily stenciled above the faded red door. There is nothing flashy about it. But this windowless, nondescript brown building on the soggy outskirts of Portland, Oregon is a portal to another time. This is the home to “Jack's Specialty Parts” and despite outward appearances, what is on the inside of those four walls is nothing short of magical. Of all the treasures inside though, the one that shines the brightest is the proprietor himself, Jack Corley.
Walking into Jack's place is hard to describe. It's a unique mixture of business and museum in a lot of ways. Just about every inch of wall space is covered in something interesting to look at. Everything from gas and oil signs, to old parts store displays, car club plaques, to fliers advertising races that were held a half century ago. The center of the facility houses row after row of tall industrial shelving units, each neatly organized into specific sections. A closer look reveals a system that is simple and functional – IF you know how to navigate it. Take the time to ask Jack himself how he tracks his inventory and you'll get a sideways smirk as he points to his flat-top, “It's all up here, every bit of it.” Now, if you find it hard to believe that an inventory consisting of thousands of antiquated parts can be organized and tracked entirely in the head of a nearly 90-year-old man, well it's just like the title says: you don't know Jack...
If we're talking about hot rodding in Portland, Oregon, we aren't going to get far into a conversation without mentioning Jack Corley. There are few still with us that perfectly embody “the way it was” quite the way he does it. Jack was in his 20's in the 1950's when hot rodding exploded. It may have started in California, but it surely did not miss the Pacific Northwest, and Jack was right smack-dab in the middle of it all. In high school, Jack enlisted in the Marine Corps Reserve. He had no way to know it at the time, but the Korean War was about to breakout. Before he knew it, he was shipped off. Luckily, the war would end before his service was needed and he wouldn't make it further than his base in California. “Hollywood Marine...” Jack says with a smirk and wink, “That's what you'd call it and that was me. I didn't see combat, but I saw some neat cars down there.”
Jack's love affair with cars began at an early age. Like most young guys, he was interested in hot rods and spent his fair share of time cruising, street racing and hopping drive-ins around Portland. His first taste of real racing began in the early 1950's. Stock cars at first, then drag racing with the Ramblers Car Club, of which he is a founding member. In 1955, he bought his first midget and was instantly hooked. Jack became heavily involved with midget racing in the Northwest and beyond. “Up here, the racing season ended around labor day, if not before, because of the rain. In California though, their season went a lot longer – through October. So when the racing ended up here, I'd hitch my car up and drag it down to the Bay Area to run a few more weekends.” If you visit Jack's shop, you'll quickly see how large of a roll that era played in his life. Besides the midget in the main area (the last remaining of the 16 he has owned and raced over the years), there is a room dedicated strictly to Offy motors and parts to rebuild them.
If you're lucky enough to be allowed into his office area, you will see just how close to the heart he holds that time in his life. Once you process the fact that the walls are covered floor to ceiling in framed 8X10 photos of Jack's racing highlights spanning multiple decades, the next thing you will need to wrap your head around is the fact that you can point to any of them and Jack will tell you exactly when the photo was taken, who the driver in the photo is and exactly why it was significant. And if you want to double check his accuracy, feel free – they're all meticulously labeled in very fine print.
Now of course, all of this racing had to be funded somehow. Back then, there were few corporate sponsor deals going around, most of these guys were working stiffs out to have a little fun. Jack was no exception. Of course, he didn't venture far from the world of four wheels, and began his career at a Kaiser dealership working in the parts and service department. From there, he would move strictly to the parts side of the business, eventually spending nearly twenty years with the Niehoff Company, among others.“I was the first guy to oversee a million dollar territory,” Jack says. “I traveled a lot in those days. They would buy companies out and I would go there and get the warehouses changed over and get them up to speed. It wasn't uncommon to be in Mississippi one week and LA the next. Most all of it I would drive, rather than fly, which I preferred. It paid the bills and it was fun."
Along the way, Jack learned that there was an added perk to being in this line of work. As he puts it, “Well, a lot of times I would go into a warehouse to do a change over, or maybe a big inventory audit or whatever the case was. More often than not, there would be this big pile obsolete parts left over. These were parts for older cars that they just hadn't sold and wanted off the books. Of course the factory wasn't going to take them back, so the big bosses would just want them to go away. I'd give them maybe $25 or $50, whatever the case was. Sometimes they'd give me the parts just so they wouldn't have to deal with throwing them in the dumpster... I'd drag them home and peddle them off at races and swap meets. Before long, I ended up with a LOT of these parts. It just kept growing over the years. What you see here isn't even close to half of what I had before I moved into this smaller building..” In addition, Jack became a distributor for M&H tires, along with a half a dozen other companies that specialized in race car and speed equipment. This would turn into what he promoted as “Jack's Specialty Speed Parts” which operated mostly from the race tracks and out of his home. As time went on and the racing went away, he would drop “speed” from the name, in order to appeal to a broader market. He now caters mostly to restorers and hot rodders looking for that one obscure part in NOS.
I find myself at Jack's a few times a month, sometimes to buy parts, sometimes to BS. I can tell you with honesty that over the years, anything I've ever asked for, he has either walked over to the shelf and grabbed it, or said “No” right away. I've never known there to be such a things as “I will have to look and see if I have it or not,” the man knows what he has and where it is. Pretty impressive considering most of us can't remember what we had for breakfast...
In addition to being a great source for antique car parts and a wealth of information, Jack Corley is also just a plain-old nice guy with a ton of hot rod and race car stories. He's the kind of guy that you could sit around and listen to him talk for hours, if you could get him to slow down and take a break for that long. I have never walked into the shop and found him lounging around. Jack always seems to be doing something: shuffling parts from here to there, climbing a step ladder to retrieve a dusty old box with that contains that one thing a guy needed, answering the phone, or loading his truck for a swap meet. Oh, and if you don't find him at his shop, chances are he is out cruising his Hemi-powered '32 Ford Roadster that he has owned for many, many decades. But, that will be another story, another day......
You won't find Jack on the internet. He is about as old school as it gets and that's the way he likes it. If you are in the Portland area and want to stop by, he is at:
909 NE Cleveland AVE
Gresham, OR 97030
He can also be reached by phone at: