Nobody has managed to invent a time machine — except in books and movies — but area residents and visitors can experience the next-best thing.
All they have to do is stop by a gift/souvenir shop on South Main Street named Wally’s Service, pay a fee and hop into a 1960s Mayberry squad car. Then they are treated to a leisurely ride around town with a knowledgeable guide as driver, which includes places native Andy Griffith inhabited many years ago.
That scene is repeated numerous times each day courtesy of a business called Squad Car Tours, which is now in its 15th year and, similar to its fleet of vintage Ford Galaxies, is running just as smoothly and strongly as ever.
“My business has grown every year,” says owner Mike Cockerham, 54, ironically fueled partly by the Internet and other digital technology that wasn’t even on the radar screen during the heyday of “The Andy Griffith Show.”
“I’m getting more emails right now than I’ve ever got,” Cockerham said of inquiries from persons interested in tours, “five or six a day.”
Along with the good thoughts “The Andy Griffith Show” conjures up — the small-town values and simpler way of life it reflects which continually draw legions of tourists to Griffith’s hometown seeking those things — are the realities of the business world.
The question often is asked: Just how long will the public’s fascination continue with a 1960s black-and-white television show when it comes to visiting the modern-day Mayberry and spending tourism dollars?
Squad Car Tours could be a barometer indicating that this might occur for a long time to come.
After being launched around 2003, the business accumulated three 1960s Ford Galaxies, replicas of the cars Sheriff Taylor and Deputy Fife drove on the show. It now has six cars, and at peak times during the summer on weekends, all six will be on the tour circuit.
“It just varies what time of year it is and all that,” Cockerham said of the customer traffic. “You don’t know from one day to the next who’s going to be in the parking lot.”
During normal weekdays, three squad cars will be running, and on one recent morning all were on tours while other customers waited at Wally’s.
“I have drivers on call every day,” Cockerham said of a group that includes about eight or nine individuals altogether.
The cost of a tour in one of the Ford Galaxies is $40 per carload — five passengers or less.
After leaving the home base at Wally’s Service, the excursion takes in local attractions such as the overlook at North Carolina Granite Corp., where the largest open-faced granite quarry in the world can be viewed; North Main Street, the location of businesses such as Floyd’s Barber Shop and Snappy Lunch which were mentioned on the TV show; along with notable granite homes and churches.
Also on the tour are the Andy Griffith Museum, Andy Griffith Playhouse and Griffith family homeplace on East Haymore Street which now houses a bed and breakfast establishment. Each tour lasts about 30 to 40 minutes and usually begins and/or ends with the activation of the cars’ sirens to inject an element of authenticity to the trip.
The drivers will offer comments along the way.
“They get real excited at Andy’s homeplace,” said Melvin Miles, a retired longtime local educator and author who has been a driver for Squad Car Tours “at least seventeen years.”
“And every carload is a different experience,” Miles added, while mentioning one factor that tends to be a common denominator with every tour: “All the excitement people have with reliving Mayberry.”
“Everybody’s happy,” fellow tour driver Steve Talley agreed regarding those taking the rides.
On one recent day, Talley — a tour driver for two years — left the lot with two couples aboard, Gerald and Linda Taylor of Swansboro and Luther and Pat Sullivan from Goochland, Virginia.
While many of the Mayberry visitors taking rides via Squad Car Tours are doing so for the first time, the business draws its share of repeat customers.
That was true recently with a couple from Kings Mountain, Kevin and Janice Mathis, who were browsing the gift and souvenir shop while awaiting their turn to ride one of the Ford Galaxies as soon as it returned to the home base.
The couple had taken the tour of the town several years ago.
“We brought the grandkids back — they wanted to see it,” Kevin Mathis said.
The main enjoyment for him is learning information about Mayberry/Mount Airy and getting an all-compassing tour of its key sites that the average visitor would be hard-pressed to accomplish on his or her own.
This experience is really “driven home” by the fact vintage autos are used.
Cockerham said his six-car fleet includes restored Ford Galaxies from the model years 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1965 and 1967, which reflects a trend on “The Andy Griffith Show.”
“Every season Ford Motor Company gave them a new one,” Cockerham explained.
In addition to owning Squad Car Tours, he has worked at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. for 35 years. Cockerham likes to restore cars and prepared the first one for his business.
After leaving his regular job, he said, “I come by Wally’s to check on things, then I go home and work on cars until it’s time to go to bed.”
When a “new” old car is needed, he relies on, yes, modern technology.
“With the Internet these days, I look nationwide,” Cockerham said of searches to find the elusive Ford Galaxies. He avoids northern locations where harsh winters, salt and chemicals cause corrosion and otherwise take a toll on vehicles.
“Probably three of them came from California,” Cockerham said of the six Galaxies he now operates.
Getting parts can be a hit-or-miss proposition.
“They made so many of those cars,” Cockerham said of one favorable factor in finding items needed, but at times this is difficult.
“I look nationwide for parts,” he said, after first checking with local suppliers.
In addition to the tours, sometimes the Ford Galaxies are pressed into service for special occasions, which have included weddings, proms or having someone picked up for his or her birthday.
The Ford Galaxies themselves enhance the good feelings those taking the rides experience, according to the Squad Car Tours owner.
“It brings back memories,” Cockerham said, “riding around in an older car with the windows down and the sweat rolling — it’s just part of the nostalgia, I guess.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.