A Look Back at the Super Shops

Feb 9, 2010

Who knew it’d be so Super?

Back in 1963, a small speed shop opened on East Baseline Avenue in San Bernardino, Calif. Through the efforts of the proprietor, Harry R. Eberlin, along with a key group of loyal employees that were there at or near the start, (in particular Mike Cunningham, Jimmy Patterson, Jim Cowell and Bill Blough), this single store would grow by leaps and bounds and in time take the automotive racing parts world by storm.

The business would flourish at a rapid rate and become the largest chain of speed shops ever, and the empire Eberlin had started would also materialize into a serious player in the performance industry as a whole.

Racing into Business

Eberlin was a car guy and loved fast cars and speed, so much so that as a youth he had been caught street racing on more than one occasion and even had to spend time in jail because of it! Once he turned his love of fast cars into selling parts and not racing on the street, things started to turn around for him, and his future became very bright.

That first store was named San Bernardino Racing Equipment and the early days of the place really didn’t amount to much. It was known as “The Cave” because of its primitive presentation.

But as the years went by, SBRE became a formidable challenger to the then-established local storefronts dealing in high-performance and racing equipment-especially to the other speed shop relatively close-by, J&M Speed Center in Riverside.

It was through hard work, long hours, sacrifice and dedication that the world was about to see how a young group of car fanatics with a common interest in high-performance vehicles (working on them, racing them, selling aftermarket parts for them) would go about building a retail giant and in effect create a larger market for racing parts and equipment, first across Southern California and later from coast to coast

During those formative years there were numerous struggles, including getting the speed equipment manufacturers to take San Bernardino Racing Equipment seriously-namely selling to them “direct” so they could compete in the marketplace.

An early example of Eberlin’s business savvy was when he invited a major wheel manufacturer out to his small shop to discuss purchasing its wheels direct. After the representative from the wheel company had a look around the place and time to think it over, he came back with a decision: no. He said the company was satisfied with its existing distribution in that area and felt another warehouse distributor wasn’t needed.

The answer didn’t sit well with Eberlin, but what could he do to convince them otherwise? He suggested the sales rep walk with him outside for a few moments and simply stand on the sidewalk of Baseline Avenue.

This was the late 1960s and “mag” wheels were all the rage, especially in Southern California. San Bernardino had its share of hopped-up cars running around with aftermarket wheels. So Harry and the wheel guy stood there watching and studying all the cars zooming by, noting what brands of wheels were on the cars.

After about 10 minutes, Eberlin’s point was made. In reality, only a small percentage of the cars in that traffic were equipped with that rep’s line of wheels.

The two of them walked back inside the store and with that startling but effective demonstration of seeing firsthand the actual marketplace for the San Bernardino location, the decision was reversed and San Bernardino Racing Equipment was recognized as a warehouse distributor for the wheels.

Staking a Claim

Competition with J&M was intense and to further gain on the market, Eberlin opened a second store in nearby Riverside, smack in the middle of his biggest competitor’s backyard. This happened in June of 1972, and soon after a third location was opened, this time in Ontario, in March of 1973.

All three of the stores were located in the “Inland Empire” region of Southern California, east of Los Angeles by about an hour’s drive. Things were starting to jell for the small but growing company. However, a lot still needed to happen before San Bernardino Racing Equipment, Riverside Racing Equipment and Ontario Racing Equipment would become a major force to be reckoned with.

In 1973, Eberlin and Patterson went to the SEMA Show to find the booth of a major ignition supplier. They wanted to talk with the top sales guy of this prestigious company and attempt to get a direct deal for purchasing. Because Eberlin’s stores were still “flying under the radar ” of some of the major manufacturers (like this ignition company), the salesman didn’t really pay any attention to the two guys from San Bernardino, and after nearly a one-hour wait with no recognition, Eberlin and Patterson walked off disappointed but determined.

The buy-in at that time to purchase direct was right around $10,000, and when the two speed parts peddlers got back to their home base on East Baseline, there was a new plan to get the attention of that ignition sales guy. Eberlin had the idea and Patterson took care of the details.

A company check for $25,000 was made out and mailed to Carson City, Nev., to the offices of the ignition manufacturer, and with it a note that said something along the lines of, “If you guys get around to selling to us, we’d be interested.”

Needless to say, this got the attention of the ignition company and soon the San Bernardino-based group of speed shops was not only direct with the ignition company, but also other key manufacturers that dealt with exhaust headers, carburetors, racing camshafts, intake manifolds, engine hard parts and accessories, racing clutch manufacturers, more wheel makers and tire manufacturers, plus the related smaller vendors that made it possible for these stores to offer the public pretty much everything they needed in terms of racing and high-performance equipment.

And besides parts for competition cars, there was a growing focus on street cars, vans and pickups. That is where the sales volume was to come from.

Perhaps the biggest tool used to get the business up and rolling on a larger scale was using the radio to get out the message. “Hedman Hedders for $39.95 at the Super Shops!” was one of the early radio promotions used, along with the same for B.F. Goodrich T/A tires and Holley carburetors, also promoted for $39.95. The radio ads were very successful at bringing customers through the doors.

Everyone is Competition

What really set Eberlin apart from the other owners of speed shops in the Southern California area was the way he went about bringing in business. His belief was that competition for sales of car-related equipment wasn’t limited just to other speed shops-his competition was literally everyone.

In other words, he felt people that got their paychecks on Fridays could and would go out and spend that money on a variety of things, not limited to aftermarket parts for their automobiles. Stereos, new clothes, things for other hobbies, you name it-and Eberlin wanted to go after that bigger piece of the pie, to push the idea of people spending their money on the aftermarket equipment he sold at his stores.

Soon, outlets were opened in San Diego, Orange and Los Angeles counties, and by 1977 a new warehouse in Colton was up and running, somewhat central to the then 10-store chain. In June of that year Covina Racing Equipment opened on Azusa Avenue in Covina, a completely brand-new store specifically built from the ground-up to company specs and a far cry from that crude-but-effective first store in San Bernardino.

Sacramento was targeted for the next store in April 1978, and out-of-state expansion started in August 1978 with a store in Salt Lake City.

Part of the success story of these stores, soon to be known as Super Shops instead of the Racing Equipment description, can be attributed to the practice of “add-on” sales by the store’s employees.

Add-on sales at the original San Bernardino store actually started out as friendly competition among early employees-all serious gear-heads and not professional salesmen. These guys knew what building cars was all about and when a customer came in to buy a new intake manifold or a set of headers, there was much attention given to showing the customer all the related parts that would also be either required or simply good to have while doing the install.

Soon a formula was devised where big-ticket items like intake manifolds and carburetors were sold at jobber (or less) prices, and the additional add-ons were sold at “list to 0.99” which was the dollar amount of the list price, with change raised to 99 cents.

In the end, a customer would walk in and buy the part he was originally after, and if the counter guy did his part and explained all the other items that would be beneficial for the installation, the end result was a customer that walked out of the store with his arms filled with all sorts of additional items.

Of course, there was more profit in that sales transaction for the store, but the customer wouldn’t have to stop halfway through the install while at home and then return later to the store (or elsewhere) to purchase the other things that were needed.

Buying Vendors, Running its Course

More expansion came for Super Shops in 1979 with the building of a brand-new, 116,000-square-foot, ultra-modern central warehouse located in San Bernardino. Also, the company purchased a new 18-wheeler rig-a diesel tractor with a 40-foot trailer-that was used to make parts deliveries to the out-of-state stores (which by now included locations in Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico.)

Things were happening fast for the Super Shops, and in July 1981 the company made headlines with its purchase of the Mallory Electric Corp. This was viewed as a very aggressive move for a retail store chain (then 18 stores strong) to purchase a vendor, especially a highly respected one like Mallory.

Ironically, this was the same ignition manufacturer that wouldn’t give Eberlin and Patterson the time of day that year at SEMA, and now Eberlin had purchased the company!

The company next purchased Sig Erson Racing Cams and moved operations from Huntington Beach, Calif., up to Carson City, home of Mallory. The name of the camshaft and valve train supplier was shortened to simply Erson Cams.

All through the 1980s and early ’90s, Super Shops continued to grow at a record pace. Additional warehouses were built and a mail order division (ASAP) was created, complete with a dedicated state-of-the-art warehouse/shipping center to compete with the existing mail order giants of the day.

The company had a pair of corporate jets (a Cessna Citation I plus a Falcon 50) and at the highest point there were a total of 165 Super Shops stores nationwide, including some exclusive tire and wheel outlets called Tires/Tyres.

The good news came to an end in the late 1990s for the Super Shops organization, starting with the chain shrinking in size from 165 total stores down to 121 locations, and for a multitude of reasons, things took a downward spiral from there.

Some blame the problems on “out of control spending” and a new management team at the top, along with decisions to change the focus of the types of products sold at the stores. Regardless, the past magic seemed to be gone and there were major changes in the company’s dealings with its primary tire supplier.

New problems seemed to arise daily, and by now most of the original management team-some of which had been there since the early days-was gone, replaced by new people that didn’t have the experience of those that helped the company grow to its impressive size.

This single-outlet company that had grown into a national phenomenon was nearing the end.

Sometime around December 1997, the once unstoppable Super Shops filed for bankruptcy. There was an effort to find a buyer for the chain, but one never materialized.

Complete store inventories were sold off at pennies on the dollar and all remaining stores were closed by early 1998. A Super ride had come to an end.