Sparky’s Hot Rod Garage auctions off its kitsch


SAN CARLOS — It’s not so much the memorabilia that Joe Bullock’s going to miss, but rather the camaraderie formed over decades of sock-hoppy, kitschy chrome-and-neon parties at Sparky’s Hot Rod Garage.

Indeed, as an auctioneer machine-gun-enunciated through the 338 items on the block on Sunday — ranging from simple tin automotive signs to a functioning 1948 Kurtis Kraft midget race car — Bullock said that his main concern was that everything wouldn’t go.

“If it doesn’t sell, that means we’ll have to pack it up, and store it and then what in the world do I do?” he said. “I don’t like to pay rent.”

Bullock, who was christened “Sparky” as a toddler by his grandfather due to his fuse-blowing penchant for jamming things in light sockets, said he’s got plenty more such knick-knacks where those came from. Another warehouse full, in fact. But he’s going to miss getting people together at the venue as he’s been doing since the late ’80s for good times and good causes.

“We had 1,400 people in here for a breast cancer benefit,” Bullock said. “We’ve raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. I’m going to miss the people — I built a lot of relationships over the past 15 to 20 years and I won’t be seeing them as often as I’m used to.”

Sparky’s Hot Rod Garage started as little more than a glorified man-cave, a gussied-up storage space for the lifelong car fanatic’s collection of vehicles and memorabilia. But friends enjoyed the ambiance and more and more of them would ask to use the facility for one event or another and, Bullock said, “I never say no to my friends.”

So he moved the cars out and made the Hot Rod Garage — a dedicated event space with museum-grade trappings. The event requests flowed in, with big players such as Apple and Oracle and Chrysler renting out the facility. In the end, there were 120 to 140 events a year including Bullock’s own themed June bashes: Viva Las Vegas night with gaming; a luau with hula dancers; a Wild Wild West event with country bands and pig racing.

“Sparky created a real landmark in this area,” said Rozalyn Mendence, who runs a similar event space called “Great Highway” and was at the auction to pick up treasures for her venue. “For people who come to these events, it takes them back to a different time, a happy place.”

Longtime friend and organizer of the Hot San Jose Nights car show Mike Hennessey said some items were going for more than they were worth — something he attributed to some kind of Sparky power.

“If my name was on it, it would go the other way and sell for less than it’s worth,” joked Hennessey. “But it’s great, it shows that people respect him, and want to own something that belonged to him. He’s not a star, but he’s done so much.”

Auctioneer Austin Neal agreed that while there were some unusual items — Formula 1 race-car frames have a very specific market — what made this event different from other liquidations he’s handled was the Sparky aspect.

“Everyone here seems to know Sparky,” he said. “He can’t even come down to the floor from his office to be seen — he’d be mobbed.”

Up in his office, a jovial and mellifluous Bullock talked about future plans that include a recently acquired vintage hydroplane racing boat. An entrepreneur and somewhat humble raconteur, he talked about his accomplishments other than throwing a great party — his grandfather founded Black Mountain Spring Water in the 1930s, a company that Bullock eventually sold around the millennium. But not after considerable success that included the invention of the tamper-proof plastic bottle top — think the plastic ring you peel off a gallon milk. He sold the company but kept the properties, and thus began a commercial real estate venture.

But after selling the Industrial Road property that inconspicuously housed the garage, Bullock had to make a decision: Relocate or move on. After talking it over with his daughter, who managed the event space, they decided it was time to turn out the neon lights.

“Oh, sometimes I have mixed emotions about it,” he said. “But we don’t live in the area, my daughter and sons are in Auburn, I’m in Loomis, my daughter wanted to spend more time with her kids. So we decided to have an auction, close down. It’s time to start a  new chapter in our lives.”

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