The Citizen Spotlight is a project I started with the Oklahoma Gazette. In each issue, we highlight a person in our community who stands out for their leadership, kindness, and good deeds. Read it on the Oklahoma Gazette website here.
To meet Adam Ely is to be greeted with a beaming smile and an energy that seems to have no bounds. This man exudes light, and he knows what it means to be down on your luck. A U.S. Army combat veteran who served over-seas in multiple tours, Ely has seen a lot of the world and witnessed its darkness, so he really just wants to put all the good he can back into it in the best way he knows how — fixing cars.
“My oldest daughter was working for Domino’s. She had a friend who would give her a ride every day, but her friend’s car was running like crap. I told her for $65, we can give her car a tune-up,” Ely said.
“She said she’d already had it diagnosed and that one of the local repair places and told her it would be almost $500 bucks to fix it. The next time she came to pick my daughter up, I told her to come 45 minutes early next time, and I’d knock it out for her. And that’s when we had a little bit of a lightbulb moment …There are a lot of places out there, and there are a lot of people in need. Some of these repair bills are unattainable, depending on your income. A little de- livery driver who makes her living off of tips can’t wait for weeks for an ex- pensive tune-up, and we can help her for less than a quarter of the cost. About six weeks later, I made a post on Facebook that said this is what I want to start doing. Six weeks later, my inbox was so full that it was just out of control. So I started a separate Facebook page just for Hard Luck Auto. The rest is history.”
In November 2017, Adam started working out of the back of his truck with a small toolbox. He’d take appointments via his new Facebook page and drive around to homes to fix their cars for free. His wife Toni, an Air Force veteran, designed T-shirts to offset the cost.
By 2019, Mike Rowe, known for Discovery Channels “Dirty Jobs,” took note and paid Ely a surprise visit on behalf of his Facebook show “Returning the Favor.” Rowe and his team rented Ely a space in downtown Oklahoma City for two years.
“The first year, the volunteers were a lot of high school kids in auto shop classes or at Vo-Tech. I would mentor them, and it was a cool place to help them learn and hang out. But the dynamic has kind of changed a bit. When Litahni ‘Shawshank’ Shawhan came on, he was my first real volunteer. He took this place from a cool garage to hang out at to a real business and a force to be reckoned with. I think he is absolutely the reason for our success today,” Ely said.
When the lease on the space ran out this April, Redemption Speed Shop stepped in to offer space for Ely and his small team of volunteers to continue to work. The single-bay shop operates three days a week and services about five cars a day. In 2020 alone, a year wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic, Hard Luck Auto served 567 people and saved Oklahomans nearly $200,000 in labor costs and parts savings thanks to partnerships with Napa Auto Parts, O’Reilly’s, AutoZone and others.
“You buy the parts and we’ll do the labor. We’ll do brakes, shocks, struts, tune-ups and oil changes. We’ll go so far as to change a fuel pump or an alternator,” Ely said. “We do a lot of suspension and brake work. We’ve found a niche that we’re really good at. When I was working out of the back of my truck for the first two years, I was only able to help three or four people a week, thanks to the incredible generosity of our volunteers and the community we’re able to help so many more,” Ely said.
The plans for the future of Hard LuckAuto are hefty. In 2020, the City of Midwest City donated an acre of land to Ely to continue his mission, but that’s only a fraction of the journey. Even with donors willing to help with windows and other elements, they still have to raise nearly $700,000 to develop the land and construct the building. They’ve hosted a music festival, poker runs, and poker tournaments to raise the money, but so far, it’s only made a small dent.
“We also had an anonymous donor through one of the philanthropy foundations in Oklahoma City donate $15,000, so the support has been amazing,” Ely said. “Of that $700,000, we’ve only got about $670,000 to go.”
The planned facility planned for the corner of NE 23rd and Air Depot in Midwest City will contain five car bays, a conference room and a shop that would allow the Hard Luck Auto team to serve even more people each week.
Hard Luck Auto brings a deep sense of purpose to Ely’s family and it does the same for his team. Danny Spaulding, a freelance graphic designer, is among Adam’s current volunteers.
“I love it to be honest. It’s an amazing gig,” Spaulding said. “I’ve always liked helping people out as much as possible. I met Adam and found out about what he was doing. I just came up here one day and asked if he needed some help. He invited me right in and let me start working on cars with him. We’re only open a few days a week so it works perfectly with my schedule while allowing me to pay it forward.”
The newest volunteer, Richard Faust, a retired GM mechanic of 32 years has only been on the job a few days.
“Why sit around bored at home since I retired,” said Faust. “I’ve always enjoyed working on cars, and I’ve always enjoyed giving back to people. Adam and Hard Luck allow me to do both. It’s very rewarding work.”
To learn more about Hard Luck Auto or to donate, visit hardluckauto.org