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By: Robert Tate, Automotive Historian/Researcher
Images: Courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection/ Robert Tate collection
Posted: 09.16.2015

This story is about the early days of auto dealerships and how important Livernois Avenue was to the automotive industry years ago in Detroit. As we look back in the earliest days of automotive history, we often wonder how many auto dealerships even existed during the birth and rise of the automobile.

file 20150916091108 Detroit Automotive DealershipsUsed Car Dealership 1930'sOne of the earliest wagon/carriages dealerships in America was founded in 1847 by the late W. Hare & Sons. The company was one of America's longest family owned purveyor of vehicles. In 1847, the late Wesley Hare, who was the son of German immigrants, lived in Noblesville, Indiana in a small log cabin house. Hare was a great repairman for wagons and carriages in his hometown during the early days of American transportation. His company sold about 700 buggies annually which turned into huge profits for the business. After running the company for 20-some years, he had signed contracts with Hupmobile, Studebaker and Cadillac.

By 1912, automobiles had comprised the majority of the company's business. However, the first documented sale of an American-built gasoline-powered automobile took place on March 24, 1898 when one Robert Allison purchased a Winton gas-powered automobile for $ 1,000. During the early days, many auto dealers had grown out of their existing garages and were family owned and operated. The owners had found that in addition to repairing vehicles money could be made by selling them to make huge profits for their company.

file 20150916091205 Detroit Automotive DealershipsChevrolet Dealership 1950'sAnother great automotive innovator, the late Henry Ford, made history on June 4, 1896 with his famous Quadricycle. In 1899, Ford went into partnership with William Murphy to form the “Detroit Automobile Company." That business would later, unfortunately, struggle to succeed. However, Ford found a new partner, Alexander Malcomson, a Detroit coal dealer and on June 16, 1903, the Ford Motor Company was formed.

During the 1930s, domestic auto production reached its lowest point since 1918 and many dealerships were trying everything they could to sell used cars. For example, the first image of this story is a view of a salesman with an upside-down Oldsmobile sedan at the Lambert-Graves Motor Company used car dealership. They were offering Aeroplane rides for free with each used car sold.

file 20150916091308 Detroit Automotive DealershipsFord Dealership Advertising in 1960By the mid 1950s, styling was the dominating factor among car dealerships. Detroit had great dealerships with charismatic salesmen who offered the customer competitive deals and new vehicles. For example, Leo Adler - De Soto/Plymouth on Fenkell Avenue in Detroit was very popular. This dealership also hired one of the first African American sales personnel, the late Dennis Chestnut; he was one of the top salesmen. Leo Adler De Soto/Plymouth was No. 3 in the country when it came to great sales.

file 20150916091344 Detroit Automotive DealershipsChrysler Showroom Dealership 1971Another great dealership in Metro Detroit was Woody Pontiac which was located in Hamtramck, Michigan on Jos Campau. The late Woodrow Woody started selling Pontiac automobiles in 1940. He was the grandfather of all Pontiac dealerships in the country. His nickname came from selling automobiles for more than half a century. Woody was a very important person within the auto industry and a great person to know. He was also later inducted into the Automotive Hall Of Fame in Dearborn.

The 1950s to 1970s were great years for Detroit area automotive dealerships. From Chrysler vehicles to Chevrolet trucks, the dealers were rapidly selling a wide range of cars for the consumer market.

file 20150916091422 Detroit Automotive DealershipsLivernois Ave at Grand River 1953Throughout Detroit’s history one of the most important streets in the city was Livernois Avenue. When it came down to purchasing new or used automobiles during the 1940's-1960, people from all over the world would take a trip and travel to the Detroit area to purchase their vehicle from Livernois Avenue. There seemed to be hundreds upon hundreds of dealerships lined on Livernois Avenue from Eight Mile Road down to Grand River. This was the place to go. Livernios Avenue is a major thoroughfare and section line road on the west side of Metro-Detroit. Livernois Avenue was named after Francis Livernois, a French farmer who resided in the area during the 18th century. As a young kid during the late 1960s, I have many fond memories of the auto dealerships that were located on Livernois. I used to ride my bicycle up and down the avenue just to see all the different makes and models of vehicles that were on display on both sides of the street.

file 20150916091519 Detroit Automotive DealershipsChrysler Imperial Dealership on Livernois in 1957
In conclusion, American car dealerships will always have a special place in automotive history and will always be remembered in our automotive heritage.

A special thanks to Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher, for donating the story to the MotorCities Story of the Week program. Photographs are courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection. (Bibliography: Genat Robert. “The American Car Dealership” MotorBooks Classics 2004. Rohan Barry. “Why Woody Works the Hamtramck car dealer turns 90 Saturday and still loves the selling life” Detroit Free press 11/12/97. Phillips John. “A Dealership For The Ages” Car and Driver magazine 2009.)

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