Much like that ever-faithful, fellow-employee who consistently shows up to work alongside folks to help them get the job done, mail-order parts warehouse mogul, JC Whitney has spent decades helping auto enthusiasts complete and upgrade their cars, trucks, jeeps, and motorcycles. And, more often than not, just like that fellow employee, their presence isn’t completely recognized – until they’re gone.
Before a time when every car nut’s “reading room” had at least one copy of the JC Whitney catalog, the company’s founder, a Lithuanian immigrant named Israel Warshawsky, began his career as a scrap dealer. Opening in 1915 just as the American automobile industry was taking root, Israel began his business in the South Side of Chicago and called it Warshawsky & Company, selling parts to Model T owners to keep their cars running. Throughout World War One and the Great Depression, Warshawsky & Company grew and Israel began buying out some of the failed automotive manufacturers, which added to their growing parts inventory.
Warshawsky & Company continued to grow, and in 1934, Israel’s son Roy came on board. Roy had recently graduated from the University of Chicago and was keenly aware of the growth afforded to fellow Chicago-based company Sears through their mail-order catalog. Roy proposed that Warshawsky & Company begin their own catalog and spent reportedly $60 on an ad in Popular Mechanics. For 25-cents, customers could receive the Warshawsky & Company catalog, chock full of parts to help them work on their cars. Response to the ad was overwhelming and the Warshawsky Company soon began shipping more parts through the mail than over their Chicago sales counter.
Roy took over the company when Israel passed in 1943, and under his direction the company continued to grow and evolve into one of its most profitable stages. The Warshawsky & Company name eventually changed into the now-iconic “JC Whitney” to afford a more domestic nomenclature. The ’50s and ’60s were incredibly profitable times for JC Whitney as a company, who now offered parts to modify, customize, as well as restore and rebuild about any vehicle. Special catalogs were designed to highlight cars, trucks, Jeep, and even Volkswagen.
Roy Warshawsky headed the company into the ’90s, until his retirement in 1991. In June of 2002, the Riverside Company purchased JC Whitney. The Riverside Company then created the Whitney Automotive Group, which oversaw other companies such as CarParts.com, StylinTrucks.com, and AllBikeSupershop.com in 2007. Three years later, the Whitney Group was then acquired by U.S. Auto Parts. In July of this year, JC Whitney was officially merged under the CarParts.com name.
Interestingly, the company that saw such growth and market saturation by grasping the brass ring of mail-order catalogs and had enjoyed a long life due to constantly evolving to fulfill customer needs, would eventually give up its name in a “dot-com” battle for customers’ screen time. While the absence of those catalogs in our mailbox may, or may not be, a welcome side-effect of this digital age, we’re hesitant to toss the first shovel of dirt into the soil of history where the JC Whitney nameplate resides.
Many times, the JC Whitney catalog wasn’t only just a place to get the parts needed to complete a project. Sometimes, it was the ONLY place to get those parts! Of course, there were always the somewhat-clever, yet cynically-engineered components like the lit-up eyeballs and tail-wagging cat decorations for your car’s rear deck. But, as Israel and Roy’s company went about purchasing components for aging cars, they were also investing in our abilities to keep those cars on the road. They also fueled our dreams of what we wanted to do, once money allowed, to make them more to our liking. Even if it did involve unnecessary items such as stick-on whitewalls, a chrome footprint for a throttle, or heaven-forbid in our “distracted driving” conscious society— a coffee maker for your car!
Perhaps you still needed to lick a stamp the last time you ordered something from JC Whitney, or maybe you have already migrated to the JCW 2.0 website at CarParts.com. Either way, not seeing that name come up in the midst of any transaction is much like hearing that a classmate from elementary school has recently passed. You may not have spoken to each other for some time, but they are part of what comprised your formative years. Now, they’re gone. You can drive by the old school, relive the memories, but you don’t recognize their children. RIP JC Whitney.