SPEVCO has always been a family affair. 

When Marty Tharpe (Founder, CEO) started painting cars in the 1960s, he had no notion that it would kick off such a wonderful life, a company destined to last fifty years, and a family that would grow beyond blood relations. 

From a Humble Beginning to Exceptional Finishes

As a young man, Marty had a simple dream: to be paid for doing work he enjoyed. He liked cars, so he sought work at a body shop. 

They wouldn’t hire him. 

But with gumption and a drive that have marked his long career, Marty offered to work for free. And so he did (for a short time, they hired him pretty fast). While there, Marty learned the skills he needed to deliver exceptional paint jobs, though he made no secret of wanting to open his own shop someday. 

His reputation for excellent work grew in the Winston-Salem area, and he started his own business, renting a single garage bay from the body shop owner he’d learned from. Soon enough, he needed more than two hands to manage the influx of paint jobs his detail-driven handiwork brought in. He hired his brother Craig to help. Together, the Tharpe brothers cultivated a reputation for delivering the highest quality automotive paint finishes in the city. 

Accelerating into the Racing Scene

As our local prestige grew, we received orders for more interesting custom work. Soon, we established a wider reputation in the region working for Winston Cup Racing and R.J. Reynolds.

Sponsors of Winston Cup Racing and most of the competitors had Show Cars to promote their brands. We were delivering beautiful, detail-driven paint jobs with immaculate finishes. Around that time, race teams began using enclosed trailers to move their cars. Soon, they wanted eye-catching paint jobs for their trailers (often a full-size picture of the vehicle). Then they wanted places for spare parts, toolboxes, and workbenches. Some teams wanted bathrooms, or places to relax built into their trailers. The projects kept growing in complexity, and Marty kept saying yes. 

SPEVCO’s reputation grew during this exciting period, and we began to garner real success with our capabilities for custom vehicle paint, art, and modifications. Our business was revving up, and we were feeling pretty great about it. 

Then Marty had a big idea. It was a project that made him as excited as a kid on Christmas. We pitched it to our best clients over at R.J. Reynolds. For the first time, the executives at RJR said “No” to us (Yeah, we couldn’t believe it either). Let’s back up to the start of it.

The Racing Simulator Gamble

Marty knew that race attendees weren’t just there because they wanted to watch OTHER PEOPLE drive fast. Most of those fans wanted to experience the thrill of hurtling around a track (without the risk of serious bodily injury) at speeds they couldn’t hope to hit legally. After a trip on which he’d tested the technology, Marty proposed building a race car simulator for the Winston Cup Racing team. It would be contained in a trailer, could travel to race days across the country, and offer fans a grippingly realistic experience driving at top speed around a track. 

This was during the era of early Atari game systems. Most video games had one button and a joystick. Video games were so basic that modern children would be amazed. The term “virtual reality” had only been conceived a few years earlier. The idea of an immersive video game that moved like an expensive amusement park ride, and felt real enough to get one’s heart pumping was the stuff of dreams. Outside of places like Walt Disney World, they didn’t really exist. Marty imagined a virtual reality experience that would thrill, delight, and inspire. And so, with a brilliant idea in mind, Marty approached our clients at R.J. Reynolds to see if they wanted to order such an item.

The executives said “No.”

Without a client commitment to offset the costs, or purchase the finished product, that should have been the end of it. While the simulator technology existed, it wasn’t anywhere in the region of inexpensive. It was daunting; a challenging, but exciting project that Marty just couldn’t shake off. With no client to pay for it, he refinanced his house to cover the production costs, literally putting his home on the line.

The simulator would have to be trailer mounted with enough strength and space to shift about in a small area. It had to pitch and move enough to give the feeling of banked curves and turns. The pedals, shifter, and steering wheel would all need to respond realistically. It had to feel like a real race car, have accurate sound effects, blow wind in your face, and give the user a truly immersive, and interactive experience.

It was a true gamble. There was no guarantee of success, and even if everything worked perfectly, there was no assurance that anyone would buy it. However, Marty had three major points on his side: he knew that people would love it, would cheerfully wait in line for it, and would talk about it.

When the trailer was finished, we knew that what we’d made was incredibly fun, groundbreaking, and would offer race fans a one-of-a-kind experience. The simulator captured the thrill of racing, but it had no buyer, and the time was coming when we’d have to pay for it. We invited the RJR executives (who had recently turned down the project) to come try this new immersive experience.

One by one, they climbed into the simulator for a race. 

Afterward, those same executives emerged, fresh from the blood-pumping, adrenaline-inducing experience with smiles as wide as an interstate. They were happy to change their minds. The racing simulator had a buyer, SPEVCO had found a new avenue to prosperity, and Marty got to keep his house.

This pivotal moment marked the time when SPEVCO shifted gears from custom automotive painters who upfitted trailers to “Experiential Marketing” trailer manufacturers. 

Experiential Marketing Triumphs

In the decades since our first simulator build, SPEVCO has grown from a small crew of builders, designers, and managers to a small army of ninety people. We started with exceptional paint jobs, and moved into brand marketing and beyond. In the years since, we’ve been trusted by such large and diverse brands as Coca-Cola, Snap-On Tools, AT&T, NASA, and Smirnoff.

What we discovered back then made the following decades into a dynamic time for SPEVCO and our customers. We started to dial in the nexus point between portability, aesthetics, brand promotion, and fun. In the decades since, we’ve delivered that same blend to our clients time and time again. It’s why they keep coming back. It’s why we’ve refurbished six Oscar Meyer Weinermobiles in the past six years, and are building three more.

For the same reason, our relationship with Snap-On Tools is nine years old and counting. We worked with Winston Cup Racing for thirty years creating iconic vehicles to delight race fans, manufacturing unique brand experiences, and creating buzz around companies, products, and services. We built NASCAR their first mobile scoreboard, and the iconic Army recruitment trailer that turned into a giant tower! 

SPEVCO’s trailer manufacturing started with a small list of services. As we grew, we realized there were urgent needs in America that we could help fill. And Marty, along with the whole team, enjoys new challenges.

A Beacon in Times of Crisis

When Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans, the nation saw one of our oldest cities and the surrounding region suffer terribly. A call came through to Marty: FEMA needed mobile medical units with serious capabilities. The urgency couldn’t be overstated, and while we hadn’t made this type of trailer before, we were bent on delivering. In thirty days, we built three mobile medical trailers for FEMA. It was the kind of project that closed up our offices, ended new sales, and stopped just about every other thing we were doing. Even the office administrators were working on those trailers. Every available hand labored to deliver them as quickly as possible. We first deployed them to the town of Waveland, Mississippi. The lights of the trailer lit up the town which had been without power for weeks. Like a beacon, it brought folks forth. Our first patient was actually an injured puppy, carried to the trailer by a distraught owner. Soon, the trailers were treating injured locals, as well. We felt pride at being able to contribute our expertise and industry to the relief of our fellow Americans suffering through an immense crisis.

Since then, disaster readiness has become a regular part of our work. SPEVCO maintains and operates a fleet of Emergency Response Units to be deployed at a moments notice for clients in the fields of banking, transportation, medical relief and data recovery. We provide solutions for big problems. 

Empowering the Workforce

Growth and profitability allowed us to contribute to our community here in Winston-Salem and throughout the state. One way is through our relationship with the Be Pro Be Proud program which educates high school students about the many vital careers in trades that pay well and don’t require a four-year degree. While America desperately needs more tradesmen, there’s very little promotion of that work for young people beginning their careers. We’re helping to change that. Be Pro, Be Proud is spreading around the country. We drew on our proficiency with experiential marketing trailers to provide an immersive, virtual experience in a mobile trailer. Young people perform work as a lineman, mechanic, electrician, plumber, drafter, heavy equipment operator, truck driver, and more in digital simulators. 

The realism is dialed up to ten, and the “games” provide very detailed glimpses into the work. They sit in the excavator seat with massive screens around them. They hold the welding torch (the flames are digital). They drive the truck. We’ve built a handful of these trailers. Each one is built for a specific state, and the careers that one can experience are customized for the needs of each region. With this program, we meet kids where they are most comfortable: a video game. Then we show them possibilities they never knew existed. Through an immersive experience, we’re showing them how interesting, rewarding, and profitable these jobs can be.

Adapting to New Challenges

After years of making exciting experiential marketing trailers, we saw a new obstacle impeding our clients. They needed more than vehicles. With a beautiful, exciting new trailer, they found they required drivers and operators along with maintenance and administrative support. While some companies wanted to fill these roles themselves, the seasonal nature of the work, and the sporadic timing and placement of special events meant new headaches. Temporary staffing, maintenance, and operations support became a barrier to brand promotion for many who wanted to work with us. Seeing a new demand, we expanded our services to meet it. We now provide complete care and operations for our trailers, scaled up or down to meet each client’s needs. 

As Marty did for years, and his son, (current President) Tii, does now, we give our staff the authority and autonomy to make decisions, and even to make mistakes. While it may lead to re-doing some work, nothing teaches quite like mistakes. Rather than forcing people to do the work the way it’s been done, we allow that sometimes, you learn new and better methods from new employees. When we have new folks, we want to impress upon them that we make each product as if it were for ourselves. That means not compromising on quality or leaving things as “good enough.” We’d rather redo the work than send out something we aren’t proud to have made.

We have always believed that hard work and meticulous craftsmanship, backed by our integrity and commitment to delivering for our customers, is the recipe for SPEVCO’s success and the prosperity for all the stakeholders at our company: Our owners, managers, staff, and clients. 

The Road Ahead

Starting from a single garage bay that could handle one vehicle, we’ve grown into a space of over one hundred thousand square feet that can accommodate state-of-the-art modifications and paint jobs for multiple trailers at once. We’ve been fortunate enough to forge long-lasting partnerships with companies around the nation. We’ve had the privilege to design and build things we dreamt up, and to offer help to our countrymen in times of need. 

As we said at the start, SPEVCO has always been a family affair. And over the years, our family has grown. What started as a one-man-show expanded to a team of ninety men and women. Twenty of them have been here for more than fifteen years, and ten of them have been at SPEVCO for two decades. Our team has become part of our family, and that is one of the greatest gifts of our success. From the start, SPEVCO depended upon great people who do great work. We have been blessed with incredible clients and staff who are second to none. 

We’ve come a long way in fifty years. It’s been a great journey, and the road ahead looks both gorgeous and challenging. We wouldn’t have it any other way.