Ted Russell delights crowd in Powell

Sandra ClarkPowell

Fasten your seatbelts, change is straight ahead.

That’s the advice from legendary car dealer Ted Russell, now 78, who spoke to a business forum Thursday at The Crown College in Powell. The Rev. Dr. Clarence Sexton said the visit was facilitated by Johnny McCoy.

Russell had asked him to organize a Q&A format because he was worried about “just standing here and talking,” Sexton said to a laugh. Russell talked for 20-plus minutes in answering the first question.

Then Sexton asked Russell to “project ahead another decade or two.”

Russell said the transition from gas-powered to electric cars will be as profound as the transition from horse-and-buggy to the automobile. He said United States consumers don’t like electric cars, primarily because of limited range. “Our Fusion could go about 230 miles (before recharging the battery),” he said. But federal law requires a fleet average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025, and Russell said there’s no way to achieve that with a gasoline engine.

He sees cities banning gasoline-powered cars, technology advancing to create better batteries with more range and self-driving cars dominating the industry.

Gasoline-powered cars won’t disappear at first because of the inventory of vehicles now in use. But over time, electric cars will overtake them. “Your grandchildren probably won’t own a car, because they won’t have to get locked in to a particular vehicle.”

They will order a car online, swipe a card and off they go. On weekends, they can order a larger car for a family excursion. Those cars may not say Ford or Chevrolet, though. “They might say Google,” said Russell. “Google right now has more cash than most countries.”

Rick Carnes, owner of Clinton Highway Wrecker Service, and Register of Deeds Sherry Witt talk with Dr. Clarence Sexton following Thursday’s meeting.

Dr. Sexton spoke briefly about the two-year technical program at The Crown College, saying it is training workers for the future. “It’s a great day of opportunity.”

Sexton announced that former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee will return to the campus in January to speak to a gathering of men. “We wanted to invite Jeff Sessions, but he’s tied up in Washington.”

Ted Russell talked of growing up in Morristown and buying his first dealership – a “starter store” Chrysler dealership in Newport. He sold his first car at age 12, met his wife in high school and graduated from Carson-Newman University with a degree in accounting, taking five years because he was also working.

He heard the Newport dealership was losing money, so he dropped in and offered to buy it. He had no money for a down payment and no credit. Finally, Russell negotiated a deal with the owner carrying a note for the full sales price. “He was bad upside down, but I didn’t care!”

Joyce Swope shows Ted Russell (center) and Bob Barlow her computer car key. Swope is administrator of libraries and director of internships in student teaching for The Crown College. Barlow worked for Russell as general manager from 1971-89.

The former owner had to co-sign his note to finance the inventory. “But then we outsold the Ford and Chevy dealerships (in Newport) combined. And a short time later, Ford Motor Co. asked him to start a dealership in West Knoxville.

“And that was my second miracle,” he said. (My wife and I) moved to Knoxville, and a Ford subsidiary financed the dealership and another financed the building. “There’s nothing special about me. I’m not a scholar, not an athlete. But I’ve enjoyed God’s blessings,” at one point owning 20 businesses. The Russells sold the businesses two years ago and funded a charitable foundation. They targeted the Knoxville area and adjacent counties with a focus on higher and technical education.


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