Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

That rare hubcap you want? Call 'Annie'

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Canadian craigslist advertisement: Rare Vintage Grease, Center & Hub Cap Collection -- FOR SALE -- $25,000 (Denver, CO, USA).

It's a unique collection, all right, with items ranging back to the 1800s and made of bronze, pewter, chrome and burnished brass. They run the gamut of manufacturers from Ford, Buick, Olds and Pontiac to Rolls-Royce and Jaguar. Rarer items include Kaiser, Whippet, Peerless, Kissel Kar, Pierce-Arrow, Packard, Hayes, Willys Knight, Chandler, Terraplane, Pope-Hartford, LaSalle, LaFayette, Marmon, Dort, Durant, KRIT, Stutz, Moon, Houk, Maxwell and Hudson.

How Jane Withers, a.k.a. Hub Cap Annie, assembled the collection is an unlikely story.

A trained nurse, Withers recalls life in Arkansas in 1982, where she was employed in pharmaceutical sales. "I had been addicted to diet pills, and when the company announced it was going to be marketing diet pills, I knew I wasn't going to be able to handle it," she says.

A friend told her he was quitting the pharmaceutical business to open a used hubcap business in St. Louis. The business model: Scour salvage yards for hubcaps, clean them up and then sell them for half of retail.

"I asked him why he would get into such a lowdown, trashy business," Withers recalls. "But then it started to make sense to me."

She borrowed US$12,500, bought a broken-down Ford pickup and a collection of 600 hubcaps belonging to a police officer in Memphis and headed for Denver, Colo. The truck broke down in Oklahoma and again in Salina, Kan., where she had to transfer the caps to a new vehicle.

"I opened the U-Haul and they just clattered out of there," she says. "Let me tell you, picking up 600 hubcaps seemed like a hell of a lot of work on a hot day in Salina."

Withers describes her business plan as "one part ignorance and two parts denial." She says she had selected the name Hub Cap Annie and had pretty much decided to open for business on the day she arrived in Denver.

"I prayed that I would find the right place to open up shop, and then found exactly what I needed," she says. "One thousand square feet for $400 a month, with a double sink where I could wash hubcaps."

Collecting merchandise from salvage yards was a dirty business.

"I had a pair of yellow gloves that got filthy, and when I got sweaty, I brushed my forehead," she says. "I later found out I had dog poop in my hair. The salvage-yard dogs use those hubcaps for toilets to show everyone who's boss."

Hub Cap Annie thrived, but hit rocky ground in 1986 when a police sting operation caught the business receiving stolen hubcaps.

"I knew better than to buy hubcaps that were sold to me four at a time," she says, "but I did it anyway and got caught."

The business barely survived, and her reputation suffered a severe shellacking.

"They were calling me Annie Capone," she recalls. "I was ashamed of what had happened and promised myself from that moment on to make sure the merchandise I sold was come by honestly."

Withers' reputation recovered. She says she was shocked that incorporating the story of her arrest into speeches actually increased demand for her services as a motivational speaker.

Over the years, the business grew to the point where Hub Cap Annie expanded into wheel sales, employed a dozen workers and maintained an inventory of 20,000 hubcaps.

"At one time, I was doing TV commercials where I dressed up in a Valkyrie costume with a horned hat and a hubcap shield and posed on a highway overpass," she says. "I was being featured on network news, CNN and the BBC. I was so high on myself, I felt like I'd invented Pepsi."

Withers sold the business in 2008, but retained a selection of outstanding hubcaps and grease caps collected over a quarter-century. Five boards contain mounted caps purchased from a private collection. A sixth board from the same collection was purchased 10 years later from a local Rolls-Royce dealer. Withers added hundreds of caps to the collection herself.

"I love this collection," she says. "The designs are so ornate and the craftsmanship is so exquisite."

Withers has Canadian roots. Her mother was born in Montreal and her uncle was Roland Withers, president and general manager of General Motors of Canada from 1968 to 1972.

"I'd be happy to see the collection wind up at a dealership or an automobile association in Canada," she says.

Withers' autobiography, Hub Cap Annie -- My Incredible Life and Times as America's Hub Cap Queen, is awaiting publication.

-- Postmedia News

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 22, 2013 F9

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