J oe Duncan was born in the summer of 1925 in Tellico Plains, Tennessee in the foothills of the Great Smokey Mountains and was immediately taken to Harriman, Tennessee as an infant in a horse drawn carriage with his Mother & Father. As a kid, he would listen to the souped up Fords and Chevy’s race moonshine on the back roads throughout the hills around the family farm, which was called Duncan Hollow. His Father was not a wealthy man, but had managed to buy enough property to establish a small farm to make a living and feed his family. At the age of 16, Joe dreamed of owning a 1940 Ford Coupe, but knew that he would never obtain one working on the family farm.
Joe Duncan Navy Picture.
At the age of 17, WWII was underway, and as most typical Tennesseans from the Volunteer state, he joined the Navy but lied about his age. In the days of very few phones and no internet, his age couldn’t be verified. Joe was shipped off to North Dakota for training, then to San Diego for deployment in the Pacific theater. Just before sailing from San Diego on a ship that was later sunk by the Japanese, Joe was diagnosed with Rheumatic Fever and was immediately sent to a military hospital in Providence, Rhode Island. On his long train ride across America, Joe gazed at the Cadillacs floating down the highways and during those long days of rolling down the track, it was then that he was convinced he would one day have his own Cadillac dealership.
Once released from the Navy, with an Honorable Discharge, Joe returned to Harriman, Tennessee and opened a small car lot.
Joe Duncan with his Powell truck after moving to Los Angeles
He met a local girl named Betty and they were married. Joe was given the Nickname “Low Dollar Joe” while in Harriman because he undercut all the larger dealers from the bigger cities such as Nashville, Chattanooga and Knoxville and would work with his customers offering them payment plans and various other options for paying. He would trade cars for property, jewelry or whatever the customers brought in. It’s ironic because many current car reality shows mimic what Joe Duncan was doing 70 years ago. His wife, Betty, worked by his side building the business.
Joe Duncan showing off his new Cadillac sign in North Hollywood
A few years passed and Joe decided that he was never going to make it big in Harriman, Tennessee, so he loaded up and moved his wife and first-born son, Richard, to Los Angeles, California. He had heard that L.A. was the place to be after the war and he remembered how much glitter that Southern California had while visiting L.A. during leaves from San Diego while in the Navy. He knew that all the Hollywood stars drove Cadillacs and thought it would be the best place for his dream to begin. Joe had been asked to run for Sheriff of Roane County in Tennessee before he left, but refused.
Joe Duncan and his salesman showing off a new Cadillac in the showroom at Duncan’s Cadillacs
Joe was a welder by trade and upon their arrival in California he found that the cost of living was considerably more than a small town in Tennessee. He could not find immediate work in L.A. as a welder, so he had to devise a new plan. Betty and Richard stayed with her Mother in L.A., who had journeyed with them while Joe shipped off to North Dakota to work on a project in a secret military facility as a welder. He claimed it was the coldest he had ever been while welding throughout the winter. He would send money to Betty weekly and after completing the job, he returned to L.A. with enough money to open “Low Dollar Joe’s” used cars. He bought a lot on Lankershim Blvd in North Hollywood and knew he could supply reasonably priced cars to the Hollywood crowd.
Joe & Richard Duncan at one of their L.A. locations.
Not long thereafter, he decided that in order to tap into the real Hollywood movers and shakers he would need Cadillacs. He made his contacts through local dealers, auctions and bankers and within a few years his dream had come true. Duncan’s Cadillacs was a reality but with a twist. By hanging around the Brown Derby and the Palomino Club, where such personalities as Clint Eastwood, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and many others patronized, Joe realized that there were many more aspiring actors and actresses than actual actors and actresses in Hollywood. They needed an image too, so he dug in and bought clean used Cadillacs and incorporated the “Low Dollar Joe” image into the Cadillac business and it thrived. He even gave the actors and actresses payment plans.
Betty Duncan holding Rick Duncan on the porch of their new home that was purchased from the Laurel & Hardy estate
Joe was able to purchase a beautiful home for his family in North Hollywood from the Laurel & Hardy estate. This is where his second son Rick was born in 1962.
Shortly thereafter the Hollywood market was changing and it was the decade of the space race, so Joe moved his family to Cocoa Beach Florida where NASA was bringing people from all over the world to the Kennedy Space Center. He started Duncan Motors, where he specialized in Cadillacs and also opened three dealer auctions, one in Orlando, Lakeland and one in Cocoa Florida. This was long before Disney World was a reality in Orlando.
Joe Duncans first auction in Florida being renovated for the grand opening.
Unfortunately, at that time, the dealer auction business was being monopolized by some larger firms, therefore it wasn’t the best investment to make, so Joe closed his auctions and Duncan Motors. Due to heart issues from getting Rheumatic Fever in the Navy, Joe grew weak and retired in his late 40’s
Sadly, in 1981 Joe died in Houston Texas of a stroke at the age of 56 with both of his sons at his side. He was buried at a beautiful cemetery in his hometown in Tennessee and the unknown WWII veteran and automobile entrepreneur was memorialized with his Naval footstone and his Gravestone which reads Joe “Low Dollar Joe” Duncan. Betty lived to be 90 and was buried in Tennessee last October, 2015, again with both of her sons by her side.
Joe Duncan lays at rest with his famed “Low Dollar Joe” forever engraved on his stone
Rick Duncan recently said, “I remember as a kid running the sales tickets from the block to the office and as I got older sneaking into the cool cars at the auction, ie… corvettes, Cadillacs, Cords, Duesenbergs, etc… I’ll never forget how excited my dad was when he established a new business, but unfortunately, I lost him way too young, He always told me that one day there would be a vast classic car market. He said, Rick buy a bunch of 59 Cadillac convertibles and the old 20 and 30 model luxury cars, such as Duesenbergs, Lincolns and Cords. He also mentioned the early Ferraris. Unfortunately, I didn’t take his advice all the time, but when I did over the years, his advice paid off. Back in the 70’s I was buying cars for 1k to 2k that is now worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Rick Duncan in the mid 60’s sitting on his dads Cadillac in Merritt Island, Florida
If my dad could only see where the market is now and maybe he can. I cannot recall a day when I was not involved with classic cars. I wanted to establish a business that my dad would be proud of, that is why I founded Duncan’s Auctions. My father always taught me to treat people fair in business and don’t play games. I remember his auction business growing exponentially, because his buyers and sellers knew that he would be honest with them. With that mentality, I hope to offer my expertise to all our customers, whether you are buying or selling. I do not believe in high pressure games, the decision to buy or sell is yours. My dad’s philosophy was, if a car is one of those kind, it will sell itself. Feel free to contact me if you ever have any questions or concerns.”
With our vast classic car experience, we can assist in every aspect of selling your classic car!
Joe Duncan’s first business card after the end of World War II
Mustang’s, Toronado’s and Cadillac’s flowing through Joe Duncan’s Orlando Auto Auction