- Written by webmin
Unless you lived in Central Florida during the late 1950s, Joe Sheppard’s was not a household name. Yet, as hardcore racing historians know, Sheppard, The Tampa Hotshoe, was a very successful racer who took on the most famous names in racing at the time – Fangio, Hill, Moss, Cunningham – and who raced all over Florida, in Nassau, and even in Cuba. And much, if not all, of that success is due to his father, Jack Sheppard, and his Tampa-based dealership, Import Motors.
Born Harlo John Sheppard in Davenport, Iowa, in 1892, Jack Sheppard was a true entrepreneur who tried – and succeeded in – starting several businesses, from interior decorating to running a grocery store, to running a bowling alley. He also had a deep interest in auto racing, and though we’ve yet to find any official records of his racing career in the 1920s, we do see that he became quite the racing promoter in the late 1940s and early 1950s, managing races at Tampa’s Plant Field oval track. We’ve also found mention of him fielding teams at Sebring in the late 1950s with Bill Tannhaeuser of Milwaukee (who once flipped a Saab on its roof at Sebring) and earlier, in the late 1930s, with driver Larry Beckett.
In 1953, Jack decided to start a new venture and opened Import Motors on the second floor of his 10-lane bowling alley. A year later, he moved the dealership downstairs and began adding just about every European car make he could get his hands on. The building had previously housed a garage and gas station since Jack bought it in 1936, so it was already set up, in a way, to handle cars. Jack Shea, who recently sent us the photo of Fred Hill in his family’s Thomas Flyer, grew up not far from the dealership and got to know Joe Sheppard well over the next several years, and has decided to share with us several of his photos and recollections of Import Motors. Jack writes:
After many other successful business ventures, Jack Sr., along with his two sons Jack Jr. and Joe, opened Import Motors where they sold and serviced just about any make of foreign car you could imagine. Jaguar, Porsche, Lotus, Austin Healey, MG, VW, Sunbeam, Hillman, Triumph, Saab, Rolls Royce and ones I can’t remember at the moment. It was “the” place on the East Coast to go to see and buy some of the coolest cars on the planet. Besides just selling the cars Sheppard’s became well known for its sports car racing success. In 1953, Jack Sr. purchased a C-Type Jaguar #034 and entered it at Sebring for George Huntoon And Phil Stiles. Shortly after returning from a tour of duty in Korea, his son Joe became interested in racing and asked his Dad to buy a Lotus from Colin Chapman in England. Jack Sr. just picked up the phone and called Chapman and asked if they could buy one of his new race cars. With these low, fast and extremely advanced cars, Joe went on to become one of this country’s best amateur drivers of his time. Joe went on to win numerous races around the country and drove competitively with the likes of Fangio, Hill, Moss, Collins, Berha, Rodriquez Brothers and many others.
I had the pleasure as a young man to know Joe and I spent as much time as I could at the dealership after school. He taught me many things about the cars I love today just by sitting for hours at his small shop on MacDill Ave after his father closed the main dealership on Howard Ave in the late ’60s. Jack Sr & Jr have left us for the big track in the sky but Joe is still with us and doing well living just a short distance from the original dealership in South Tampa with his new wife, enjoying all the great memories of a time when things where just a little simpler. The photos of the E-Type Jaguar in front of the dealership and the MG and Austin Healey in front of the Tampa Yacht Club are an example of Jack Seniors skill at marketing in Tampa; if there was any civic function going on in Tampa there would always be a Sheppard car available free of charge for the event. The other photo of the MGs is pretty self explanatory and I doubt if another display like that was ever arranged at other MG dealerships.
As for the location of the dealership, we found out that Dave Heinz Imports later occupied the same space, and we’ve found at least three Tampa-area addresses for Heinz: 3652 Cypress, from about 1968 to 1970; 1413 S. Howard Avenue, from about 1971 to 1972; and 1101 E. Hillsborough, from about 1976 to 1985. Even if Jack Shea hadn’t noted that Import Motors was located on Howard Avenue, we know that Jack Sheppard’s grocery store was located at 1407 Howard, and we’ve seen references to his bowling alley being located on Howard. With Google Maps, we see a two-story building at that address (one of Jack Shea’s pictures, right, depicts several cars stored on the second floor of the dealership), and we see that an Italian eatery, along with a mini-mall, now occupies the space where racing history was made. Jack Sheppard’s grandson, Gaines Bishop, also confirmed that the 1413 Howard address is correct.
More on the Sheppard clan and Import Motors can be found in an excellent thread on Joe Sheppard on TNF.
Also, thanks to Gaines, we have a few more photos of Jack Sheppard and of the dealership building on Howard Avenue. Thanks, Gaines!