Lake Norman & Mooresville

He has a passion for British cars

The building on N.C. 16 just north of downtown Denver with the Hemphill's sign in front appears to be vacant, but in fact houses a collection of vintage British automobiles, the pride and joy of Denver resident Don Hemphill.

Hemphill, 70, and born in Marion, owns Star America, a hosiery mill in Concord. His son Donnie, 39, has run the family business for the last two years, allowing Hemphill more time to indulge his hobby. "My son accuses me of coming in to work at 10 a.m. and having lunch. I really just walk through the mill to see how things are going."

The car collection is housed in a building which, until three years ago, had been a Volvo garage. When it came on the market, Hemphill bought it, having run out of space in his own four-car garage.

Hemphill's interest in cars began when his dad, who owned a country store in Nebo, near Lake James, accepted a 1940 Chevy in payment for a $15 debt. "That car was in terrible condition," said Hemphill. "The transmission had only one gear, high, so with the help of some neighbors, we got it running. When we were finished working on it, the only gear that didn't work was high. Dad finally sold the car, but I don't remember if he got his $15 back."

"I was like most kids that age, just interested in cars. My 15-year-old cousin, Jim, and I would race cars around dad's property. We used one-quart oil cans as markers for our race track."

"When I graduated from Marion High School in 1959, I was driving a 1956 Chevy, but a fellow in town was selling a 1955 MG TF for $600. I knew I wanted to have that car, but I only had $200 to my name."

"My mom agreed to give me $200, and I was going to borrow the other $200 from an aunt and uncle. Unfortunately, a neighbor told my mom that the MG was not dependable, so she took back her money and I had to return the car to the owner after just two days."

Those two days in possession of the MG were enough for Hemphill to cultivate a lifelong passion for British cars. "I told myself that one day I would buy an MG when I could afford it on my own," he said "That day came five years later, when I bought a 1960 MGA convertible roadster for $1,000."

The decision to spend that much money on a British car was a sign of things to come. Hemphill's car-buying philosophy might be described as "Buy it and then worry about the money."

"I was making just $65 a week working for a dye company. When the battery in the MGA died, I had to crank the engine by hand because I couldn't afford to buy a new battery."

Hemphill married his sweetheart, Becky, in 1967 and the couple settled down in Rock Hill. It didn't take Becky long to realize that British automobiles would be an important part of their married life. That year, he bought two Austin Healeys, a '58 and a '62, to work on as a hobby.

Another opportunity arose in 1972, when his cousin offered to sell him a '67 Austin Healey for $500. "I told Becky to write him a check and she said that we didn't have that kind of money. I told her to write the check anyway and we'd find the money somehow."

A major turning point occurred just a year later, when Hemphill decided to sell the Austin Healey in order to raise enough money to buy his own business, a chemical dye company. "It bothered me to sell the Austin, but I could see my future in that business."

His foresight paid off. The business did well, and in 1975, they were able to buy a '63 Austin Healey as a hobby car. "We still have that car, and we drive it to Austin Healey conclaves whenever we can," he says.

"We've been involved in the Carolinas Austin Healey Club for more than 30 years and we've made a lot of good friends that way."

Describing his passion for British cars as "a serious hobby bordering on an obsession," Hemphill's collection of six vintage British cars includes three Austin Healeys, three MGs and a '97 Jaguar XK8, which his wife drives.

Hemphill himself drives a 2007 Cadillac Escalade, but points out that he also drives each of the vintage cars from time to time to keep them in good running order. He does necessary minor work on the cars, but if more involved restoration is required, he has it done professionally.

"We go to half a dozen car shows every summer, anywhere from Charlotte to Florida, Kentucky or Tennessee," he said, "and we always drive the car we're going to show."

As for his future plans, he says, "I'm going to retire for real and spend more time in the shop tinkering with my classic cars."