Big man, big voice: the early years of dealer legend Red McCombs

UPDATED: 7/5/11 9:10 am ET

If Red McCombs hadn't become a billionaire car dealer, philanthropist and sports team owner, he could have earned a good living on the storytelling circuit.

Telling tales comes naturally to the big man from the tiny west Texas town of Spur. It's something about that voice.

"When I'm in a good mood, the normal force of my voice can frighten the birds out of tall trees," McCombs wrote in his 2011 autobiography, Big Red.

I was lucky enough to spend a couple of hours with McCombs at his San Antonio office recently, surrounded by his collection of vintage Western paintings, antique firearms, saddles and other Western paraphernalia. The story of his swashbuckling early days is featured in this week's issue of Automotive News.

McCombs is a born actor. Regaling me with tales of his rough and tumble early car-dealer days, he voices all the parts. He shifts into a high-pitched whine of faint-hearted salesmen fearful of losing their commission money when McCombs insisted on closing all deals himself:

"God I don't want to split my deal," he wails, recalling their dismay.

Reverting to his own window-rattling drawl, McCombs says, "You can have your deal. I don't want your deal."

He was describing a scene in early 1958 at Hemphill McCombs Ford in San Antonio. His friend and mentor Austin Hemphill had asked McCombs to help save his recession-buffeted dealership.

McCombs talks bluntly about his battle with alcohol. Booze nearly killed him before he quit drinking at age 48. In those early days, business was often conducted with an open bottle present.

McCombs shocked Hemphill's banker by telling the poor man that Hemphill was more than $100,000 in debt. McCombs planned to pay off the debt and save his friend's business with a vintage bit of McCombs financial derring-do.

Readying his secret weapon, McCombs told the banker, "'I understand you like to take a little pop every now and then? I happen to have a bottle of bourbon here.' He said, 'Well, get the sumbitch open.' We sat there right there in the middle of the afternoon drinking that damn bourbon straight out of the bottle. We took about three swigs each."

A combination of McCombs' charm and whisky calmed the banker's nerves and McCombs had done another deal. He would do many more, graduating from cars to pro sports franchises and myriad other enterprises. McCombs Enterprises now has 25 businesses. But he loves selling cars more than anything else.

"The desire to own a car gets stronger every day that we live. It has no boundary of age."

They don't make them like Red McCombs anymore. I'm glad he shared a small part of his legend with me.

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