“LOW DOLLAR JOE” A Classic Car entrepreneur
Joe Duncan was born in the summer of 1925 in Tellico Plains, Tennessee in the foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains and was immediately taken to Harriman, Tennessee as an infant in a horse drawn carriage with his Mother & Father. As a kid he would listen to the souped-up Fords and Chevy’s race moonshine on the back roads throughout the hills around the family farm, which was called Duncan Hollow. His Father was not a wealthy man, but had managed to buy enough property to establish a small farm to make a living and feed his family. At the age of 16, Joe dreamed of owning a 1940 Ford Coupe, but knew that he would never obtain one working on the family farm. At the age of 17, WWII was underway, and as most typical Tennesseans from the Volunteer state, he joined the Navy but lied about his age. In the days of very few phones and no internet, his age couldn’t be verified. Joe was shipped off to North Dakota for training, then to San Diego for deployment in the Pacific theater. Just before sailing from San Diego on a ship that was later sunk by the Japanese, Joe was diagnosed with Rheumatic Fever and was immediately sent to a military hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. On his long train ride across America, Joe gazed at the Cadillacs floating down the highways and during those long days of rolling down the track, it was then that he was convinced he would one day have his own Cadillac dealership.
Once released from the Navy, with an Honorable Discharge, Joe returned to Harriman, Tennessee and opened a small car lot.
He met a local girl named Betty and they were married. Joe was given the Nickname “Low Dollar Joe” while in Harriman because he undercut all the larger dealers from the bigger cities such as Nashville and Knoxville and would work with his customers offering them payment plans and various other options for paying. He would trade cars for property, jewelry or whatever the customers brought in. It’s ironic because many current car reality shows mimic what Joe Duncan was doing 70 years ago. His wife, Betty, worked by his side building the business.
A few years passed and Joe decided that he was never going to make it big in Harriman, Tennessee, so he loaded up and moved his wife and first-born son, Richard, to Los Angeles, California. He had heard that L.A. was the place to be after the war and he remembered how much glitter that Southern California had while visiting L.A. during leaves from San Diego while in the Navy. He knew that all the Hollywood stars drove Cadillacs and thought it would be the best place for his dream to begin. Joe had been asked to run for Sheriff of Roane County in Tennessee before he left, but refused.
Joe was a welder by trade and upon their arrival in California he found that the cost of living was considerably more than a small town in Tennessee. He could not find immediate work in L.A. as a welder, so he had to devise a new plan. Betty and Richard stayed with her Mother in L.A., who had journeyed with them while Joe shipped off to North Dakota to work on a project in a secret military facility as a welder. He claimed it was the coldest he had ever been while welding throughout the winter. He would send money to Betty weekly and after completing the job, he returned to L.A. with enough money to open “Low Dollar Joe’s” used cars. He bought a lot on Lankershim Blvd in North Hollywood and knew he could supply reasonably priced cars to the Hollywood crowd.
Not long thereafter, he decided that in order to tap into the real Hollywood movers and shakers he would need Cadillacs. He made his contacts through local dealers, auctions and bankers and within a few years his dream had come true. Duncan’s Cadillacs was a reality but with a twist. By hanging around the Brown Derby and the Palomino Club, where such personalities as Clint Eastwood, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and many others patronized, Joe realized that there were many more aspiring actors and actresses than actual actors and actresses in Hollywood. They needed an image too, so he dug in and bought clean used Cadillacs and incorporated the “Low Dollar Joe” image into the Cadillac business and it thrived. He even gave the actors and actresses payment plans.
Joe was able to purchase a beautiful home for his family in North Hollywood from the Laurel & Hardy estate. This is where his second son Rick was born in 1962.
Shortly thereafter the Hollywood market was changing and it was the decade of the space race, so Joe moved his family to Cocoa Beach Florida where NASA was bringing people from all over the world to the Kennedy Space Center. He started Duncan Motors, where he specialized in Cadillacs and also opened two dealer auctions, one in Orlando and one in Cocoa Florida. This was long before Disney World was a reality in Orlando. Unfortunately, at that time, the dealer auction business was being monopolized by some larger firms, therefore it wasn’t the best investment to make, so Joe closed his auctions and Duncan Motors and, due to heart issues in his late 40’s, Joe grew weak and retired.
Sadly, in 1981 Joe died in Houston Texas of a stroke at the age of 56 with both of his sons at his side. He was buried at a beautiful cemetery in his hometown in Tennessee and the unknown WWII veteran and automobile entrepreneur was memorialized with his Naval footstone and his Gravestone which reads Joe “Low Dollar Joe” Duncan. Betty lived to be 90 and was buried in Tennessee last October, 2015, again with both of her sons by her side.