By Kevin Kerr
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“Hard work, loyalty propel local VW shop into next generation.”
If there are two things Ardmore native Earl Mann respects, it’s loyalty and hard work. Through those two attributes, Mann has created a diamond amongst the rough in Ardmore with Earl Mann’s Bug Shop.
Mann literally built the business in his backyard, starting with one little shed where he built his own projects. Fast forward 40 years, and Mann has Volkswagen restorations that have toured the world and appeared numerous times in national and international Volkswagen magazines, dubbing his creations “Mann-Made.”
But his success boils down to those two attributes, and the history he has in the community.
In 1960, Mann was working as a mechanic at a Cadillac dealership, when he saw the first Volkswagen in Ardmore. Owner D.W. Hill bought the car, and later built a Volkswagen dealership, Hill Motor Company, where Mann would begin his lifelong journey into the world of VWs.
After a short stint of trying to get on a union job at Uniroyal, now Michelin, Mann got a job as a service manager at McCulloh MC for about a year, before moving over to Hill’s VW dealership.
“Back then, auto shops weren’t parts stores,” Mann said. “If a car came in, a part had to be ordered and delivered, so you would have cars sitting in your stalls and on the lifts taking up space that weren’t moving and weren’t bringing in the money.
“Volkswagen was different. They were clean and you had to have the parts in stock, You could get it in, fix it and get it out quick, so you were making money quicker at the Volkswagen dealerships. That’s how I got into Volkswagen.”
In 1971, Mann began working part-time on the German-made cars in his backyard and built what would be the base for Earl Mann’s Bug Shop.
“Once we got it built up and had enough business to make money, that became my job,” Mann said.
For the next couple decades, Mann slowly built the business by adding a paint and body shop, adding a salvage element and bringing on his sons to work with him. The shop gained notoriety as a place where VW owners could bring their cars to have work done, without driving to Dallas or Oklahoma City. In the ’90s, though, things changed drastically when some of Mann’s VW creations gained national attention.
The magazine “Hot VW” featured a Volkswagen Bug owned by Dale Shick-Heath who touted the hard work and dedication he received from Mann on his project. In the years following, Mann received more praise for other projects appearing in the magazine, and had the “Mann-Made” phrase coined in the articles. But his biggest break came when he was contacted by Pepsi to build and paint six Mug Root Beer themed VW Bugs.
“That was when we really took off,” he said. “After that, our business nearly doubled.”
Mann’s name is now associated with some of the top Volkswagen show cars in the country, including some that were built decades ago that still win first place at shows.
His secret — the details.
“We take pride in the product we produce. We make sure every bolt is tightened on the car before we send it out,” Mann said. “We’ve got a really good rating with the products we produce.”
But Mann’s legacy isn’t just within the cars he helped build, it’s with the people associated with them.
Doctors, lawyers, business owners — these are just a few of the high-profile positions held by some of Mann’s former employees, who have an average employment under him of nearly 25 years.
“Guys like Darryl Love, he worked for me for 25 five years, even before my sons came on to help me, before the business was big,” Mann said. “And James Johnson, former Vo-Tech instructor, we worked together at McCulloh Cadillac, and he worked with me for a few years on and off when we were just starting out.
“Those guys are real special to me. They still call, want to know how we’re doing, how my wife is doing.”
The loyalty also stays close to home with Mann’s son, Ricky, who has been at his father’s side for the majority of the shop’s existence.
“He’s really put his heart and soul into the business, he’s a hard worker like me, works six days a week and until the last job is done,” Mann said. “He’s got my blood for sure.”
Mann’s other sons, Steve and Jeff, also work at the shop, leaving the business that started from his shed, in the capable hands of the next generation.
However, Mann said there’s still one component of the business that held it together through all of its existence.
“Without my wife, Sue, I think we might have gone crazy,” he said. “She’s been the rock of this whole thing, keeping us all together, sane. She really is the driving force behind this business.
She raised our five children all through this and held us together. That’s why her name is on the business card too.”
Earl Mann will celebrate his 74th birthday this week, dedicating more than half of it to the Bug Shop. In that time, he has built a name and a legacy for his family, quite literally from his backyard, and is happy with the way things have turned out and where they are headed.
“Ricky’s just as hard working and dedicated as I am,” he said. “When my wife and I give him the business, the customers, that have been so loyal to us, will feel safe knowing that Ricky will dedicate just as much to this business as we have in the past.”