Charlotte man restores Elvis’ last ride to Graceland

slyttle@charlotteobserver.comApril 2, 2014 

  • AutoFair

    Charlotte Motor Speedway’s AutoFair also will include tributes to the 50th anniversary of the Ford Mustang and the 85th anniversary of the N.C. Highway Patrol. And there will be thousands of automobiles displayed by area owners.

    Show hours are 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $10 for adults, and children 13 and younger are admitted free when with adults. Parking is $5. For details, check www.charlottemotorspeedway.com.

On the night of Aug. 16, 1977, Elvis Presley drove his beloved 1973 Stutz Blackhawk III to visit his dentist and then returned to Graceland, his home in Memphis.

A few hours later, Presley was dead, and in the subsequent months, Graceland officials moved the Italian-made luxury car to the back of the property, where it sat virtually mothballed for more than four decades.

Late last year, the Graceland Foundation asked Charlotte-area resident Walt Hollifield to get the car – with its wool carpets, gold dashboard fixtures and leather seats – running again and back in show shape.

Three months of painstaking work by Hollifield and a crew of helpers will be on display Thursday through Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s AutoFair.

“Basically, the inside of this car hadn’t been touched since Elvis died,” said Hollifield, a textile company owner who has become one of the country’s leading car restorers as a hobby. “So our goal was to maintain the DNA of Elvis in this car.”

That meant no washing of the windows or scrubbing of the Italian-made leather seats. The word “restore” wasn’t in Hollifield’s vocabulary. He and the rest of the crew from Rolling Thunder Inc., an auto preservation company headed by Hollifield and Vice President Phyllis Strickland, wanted to preserve the car, which Presley bought in 1974 for $23,000.

That meant removing nicks and dents and cleaning the inside and outside. Rick and Carol Lancaster, who handled the body work, removed only a half-dozen small pieces. Hollifield’s “Michigan Connection” – Big John Sports and SMI and the Gilmore Museum, along with major parts producers such as Delco – provided free parts.

Hollifield said that before his group began preservation efforts, they replaced the car’s battery to see if it would start. “It fired right up,” he said.

They replaced the spark plugs, fuel filter and a few other parts, but the rest of the car is the same as the night Elvis drove it.

“This was a special car for Elvis,” Hollifield said. “Unlike his other cars, he never let anyone else drive it.”

The jet-black sedan only has 8,000 miles on it. Some of those were logged last week at Charlotte Motor Speedway, when a pair of Elvis fans, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Rick Hendrick, drove the car around the track a few times.

“This car had never been off the Graceland property, so it says a lot about Walt and his group that they allowed the car to come to North Carolina,” said Scott Cooper, communications director for Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“The scariest part,” Hollifield says with a chuckle, “was the ride to Charlotte from Memphis. We put the Stutz in a trailer and came across I-40 in the first week of January. We drove right into a snowstorm. You’d better believe that I was a little nervous.”

After this weekend’s show, the car will return to Graceland. Hollifield said he hopes officials there will let him work with some of Elvis’ other vehicles, including the iconic pink Cadillac.

“It was kind of strange, working with this car,” he said. “I knew that Elvis was the last person who touched a lot of it. We tried to maintain that museum feel.”

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