When W. Hare & Son, a Chevrolet dealership in Noblesville, Ind., got its start, James Polk was in the White House and cars were nowhere to be found.
It was 1847, and founder Wesley Hare launched what would become one of the largest carriage and wagon companies in the Midwest. Today, 164 years later, Hare bills itself as America's oldest transportation company.
It's also one of the oldest Chevrolet dealerships around, selling the bow-tie-badged cars since 1921 after a decade of dabbling with Cadillacs, Hupmobiles, Overlands and Studebakers.
Now the sixth generation, a pair of sisters, is at the helm of Hare, commonly called Hare Chevrolet. Courtney Cole and Monica Peck bought majority ownership from their parents, Dave and Jackie Cox, in 2008.
Peck remembers spending many mornings at the dealership waiting for the school bus to pick her up and watching Grandpa Jack Hare make coffee and greet customers. Hare's business advice to his granddaughters and son-in-law Cox was that people like to do business with people they know and trust.
"Not much has changed," said Peck, 37, who manages the fixed operations of Hare Chevrolet. "I make coffee every day. [I learned] to be there to shake the customers' hands and thank them for their business. That's something that's stayed very intact through the three generations that I've been through."
The family's history has been a touchstone for customers, too. In that part of metropolitan Indianapolis, with 12 other Chevy dealers within a 25-mile radius, the longtime community ties sell cars, sometimes to generations of families.
Hare Chevrolet plays up that history. An 1879 buggy hangs from the ceiling, and a 90-foot-long mural depicting the company's history covers the showroom wall.
That mural once caused a big argument with the manufacturer, Dave Cox recalled. Chevy wanted the mural replaced with a blue bar to create a look consistent with other dealerships. No way, said the family.
"Because I know what that does for us," Cox said. "My big mural will sell a hell of a lot more cars than a blue bar."
Arguments over facility requirements bridge the generations, too. In the middle of the Depression, Chevrolet made the Hares buy an expensive factory sign for the building. "They were struggling to stay alive," Cox said. "Times were tough enough. You didn't need your partner putting more pressure on you."
Factory people and dealers come from different cultures and sometimes clash, Cox said. But the family feels gratitude toward Chevrolet. "Quite honestly, I wouldn't be employed if it wasn't for Chevrolet," Cox said. "I'd be foolish to think otherwise. I've had a very successful family life."
Peck said: "It's every day that we thank the good Lord that we are Chevrolet. We had Oldsmobile, and it went away."
Cox's daughters hadn't intended to join the family business. Cole and Peck, both athletes at Indiana University, pursued nonautomotive careers after college. Then Cole, who worked for one of the big public accounting firms, did some work for an automobile dealer client.
"She came back and said, 'Wow, these people can make a lot of money," recalled Cox, who says his oldest daughter has more of a sales personality than an accounting personality. Soon afterward, in 1995, she joined Hare Chevrolet. Cole, now 40, runs the sales and marketing side of the dealership.
Peck worked for several years in information technology consulting before joining the dealership in 2003. The sisters worked side by side with their dad for several years before taking control three years ago.
It was 2008, just before the economic crisis sent GM spiraling toward bankruptcy. Hare Chevrolet's sales suffered along with the rest of the industry.
But they never had a month in the red. Peck credits that in part to the huge emphasis they put on selling used cars once the crisis started. The sisters also have been proactive about selling through the Internet and social media. The 15 staffers in Hare's business development center are chatting online constantly with potential customers, Peck said.
Scenes from a 90-foot-long mural on the showroom wall depict Hare Chevrolet's history.
From 3 days to hours
Hare Chevrolet is on track for $120 million in revenue this year. Sales are up, and Cole and Peck look to top 2010's sales of 3,333 new and used vehicles. That would get the dealership back near the 3,500 vehicles it was selling annually before the recession.
The objective today is to find what the customers want and get them out the door fast.
That's one of the biggest differences that Jackie Cox noted between her daughters' experience and that of her father and grandfather. She remembers when there was a park bench in the dealership.
Potential customers would come in for successive days and sit on that bench to shoot the breeze about sports or the weather.
It wasn't until the third day that you even brought up the subject of buying a car, she said. To do so sooner would be considered "too brash."
"Now one of the things my daughters focus on is turnaround time," Jackie Cox said. "People want to get on with their business."
STILL HERE AFTER 164 YEARS
• What: W. Hare & Son
• AKA: Hare Chevrolet
• Where: Noblesville, Ind.
• Founded: 1847 as a buggy and wagon maker
• Selling Chevys: Since 1921
• 2010 vehicle sales: 1,227 new; 2,106 used
• Projected 2011 revenue: $120 million
• Owners: 6th generation of the Hare family, sisters Courtney Cole and Monica Peck