Parked at Used Car Heaven Salesman: An auto dealer has been scraping together a living for four decades on a little lot in Southwest Baltimore.

August 18, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Ken Marshall -- chief executive officer of a bucolic patch of Baltimore known as Used Car Heaven -- falls back on the Roman Catholic education he got at St. Wenceslaus parish to explain the theological nuances involved in the sale of used cars.

"Used Car Heaven -- that's my own origination," he explains. "That's because I only handle good cars and you only go to heaven if you're good."

Marshall seems to have forgotten the part of his catechism that says you go to someplace a little warmer than heaven for telling fibs.

If Ma & Pa Kettle were going to abandon the family jalopy, they'd do it at the "little rag bag operation" in Southwest Baltimore where it's anyone's guess as to how many of the cars actually run.

"Probably half don't run," ventures Marshall, still spry enough at 75 to leap off the dented hood of a junked compact at the back of the lot after tying up a string of tattered pennants.

It's hard to tell which half Marshall is referring to on the three-quarters-of-an-acre lot in Morrell Park crowded with gutted pickup trucks attached to vandalized campers, Ford Grenadas with paint jobs that look like they were rolled on and rusting economy cars with missing dashboards.

"Definitely the eight up front run," he says. Marshall takes a 1985 Cutlass Supreme -- $550 or best offer -- out of the front row to prove his point. Before the engine will turn over, he has to change the battery.

"I scrape out a living, but to be perfectly frank with you, I ain't been making no money here, that's why you see me stuck with this bunch of mangy pieces of junk," says the Chuck Thompson look-alike who offers no warranty on his products.

Early start

Every weekday before the sun comes up, Marshall leaves his Overlea home for his livelihood in the 1900 block of Maisel St., just off Washington Boulevard near the old Montgomery Ward warehouse. He stays until noon, then goes home and gets in his pajamas to watch TV and answer mail.

Marshall has done his horse trading on the same lot for some 40 years, ever since selling his last new car for Landay's Nash on South Paca Street, since the days when Maisel Street was a residential neighborhood before the Gwynns Falls flooded one too many times in the early 1970s and the city demolished the rowhouses there.

"This has always been a live street," he says, waving to a steady parade of truck drivers, friends and strangers who cruise the narrow artery that connects Morrell Park with the Mount Winans neighborhood. "It might look like it's out of the way, but you'd be surprised."

Most get scrapped

Marshall says he sells about two or three cars a week. He scraps more than he sells.

"You junk 'em for $40 or $50, but the price goes by weight and not only can't you tell one new car from another because they all look alike these days, they don't weigh as much as they used to," Marshall explains. "I got a guy with a tow truck who uses the back of my lot and if we get a car that ain't no good, he'll wait until he gets eight or 10 of them and junk 'em all in the same day."

One of the Maisel Street houses that was torn down was used by Marshall as an office. The old front walkway is still there, right next to the small office trailer Marshall uses and the colony of stray cats that survives behind it on his benevolence.

"They're my friends. If I had to be anything other than a human being, I think I'd be a cat," he says, bending to fill a bowl with milk. "They're such wonderful creatures and they have nine lives."

Which is at least seven more lives than Marshall's cars seem to have. Hooligans have burned him out of three earlier trailers and once set a half-dozen of his cars on fire at once.

The inside of his trailer is festooned with boxing promotions and horse race posters ("I like to bet, but I ain't no racetrack degenerate," he says), snapshots of children and grandchildren and fishing trips, a crucifix, an up-to-date used car dealer's license issued to Kenneth J. Marshall and Catherine F. Marshall, and a sign that counsels folks to: "Be happy. For every minute you are angry you lose 60 seconds of happiness."

A phone inside the trailer rings over the sound of an AM radio station playing Billy Eckstine and Sarah Vaughn. Marshall, a little hard of hearing, starts barking into the phone.

"What can I do for you?" he asks. "Does it run? What year is it? How's the body? Whaddaya want for it? About $100? How about $50? Bring it over."

From an ad

Marshall gets his inventory from a classified ad that runs in the paper every morning under "Autos Wanted." In the world of used cars, a cheap buy is about $1,000. At Used Car Heaven, you can get a Ford Fairmount for $250, a Chevy Citation for about the same.

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