Thursday, May 14, 2009

The American Automobile Dealer in Crisis

The employees of Garten Motors, Hinton, West Virginia, mid-1950s.

Carlos Garten, a Hinton, West Virginia Ford dealer, handing over the keys of a drivers' education car to the local school superintendent, 1946.

Today (May 14, 2009), nearly 800 Chrysler dealers received letters ordering them to shut their doors. Coupled with the shuttering of Ford and GM dealers due to the credit-induced recession, the ending of brands like Pontiac, and the lack of consumer confidence due to the fears of bankruptcy, the loss of so many dealerships will result in increased levels of unemployment and a decline in the economy equal to the job-losses that are the consequence of closing the factories.

In larger cities, consumers will have a harder time cutting good deals in which they play one dealer against another. And the effect on small towns is most alarming. It was those dealers who sponsored little league teams, furnished driver eductation vehicles and were key to the economic vibrancy of the community.

Certainly as a result of this tumult, we as Americans have lost something of value within our society. The following is my description of the small town dealer from the past, taken from The Automobile and American Life (pages 147-49):

An example from the Mid-South serves to illustrate both the entrepreneurial spirit and integration into the social life of the community that characterized the late 1940s and early 1950s automobile boom. In 1946, Carlos Bryant Garten, already a successful local businessman in Summers and Raleigh Counties, West Virginia, obtained one of the first postwar Ford Motor Company dealer franchises. Clearly, for Ford Motor Company the period immediately following the war was a make or break time. Henry Ford II himself spent portions of 1945 and 1946 traveling extensively to visit dealerships around the country. Ford wanted to meet established and new dealers personally, wander showrooms and listen to concerns.

Meeting Mr. Ford in one of those forays outside of Dearborn was Carlos Garten, who in late 1945 built a small dealership to Ford Motor Company specifications and later in 1946 took delivery of some of the first new Fords to be shipped to dealers since the end of wartime production. Given demand, those first two Ford coupes pushed off a C & O railcar at Hinton, West Virginia, were driven to Garten Motors Ford a few miles away and already had a dozen potential buyers standing in line. Over the next decade, Mr. Garten would sell hundreds of new Ford and Mercury cars in addition to taking extensive orders for profitable mine and timber trucks. By the mid-1950s, Garten had become among the wealthiest businessmen in the community.

While Chevrolet, Dodge, and Pontiac dealerships were established later, in the early 1950s in Summers County, Garten’s dealership became a trusted mainstay within an Appalachian community of 5,460. Garten Motors Ford, not unlike many new small town dealerships in the postwar period, was a family affair. Garten’s son Magee was vice-president, son-in-law Damon was senior salesperson, son Johnny drove the company’s wrecker and managed the parts department, and the women in the family were often called upon for secretarial services and advice in ordering paint colors and upholstery trim options on the assumption that females heavily influenced their husband’s car selection!

Like many of the post-war new small town “mom-and-pop” dealers, Garten Motors Ford became a fixture in the community, a place where men and their sons would sometimes go simply to hang out and talk cars with like-minded folks. As in many communities, early September of each year brought the new model year launch and Carlos Garten was never one to let that opportunity go by. Each year in the early ‘50s he would sponsor a parade through town with grandsons on horses and banners waving to advertise the new vehicles. From dealership sponsorship of little league softball teams to playing Santa Claus in the annual Christmas parades to chairing fund-raising projects to better the area, Garten quickly became influential within the social and political life of his community. As a strong supporter of education, Mr. Garten built trust within the community through such generous acts as contributing to the Board of Education its first drivers’ education car, serving as president of the Board of Education, and leading numerous civic organizations. Such community leadership was not unlike hundreds of other 1950s car dealers who, at the time, simply viewed the cultivation of strong community relations as part of good business.

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