Old stores, old stories: How Chevy's earliest dealers started and survived
From world wars through General Motors' bankruptcy, some dealerships have hung on for nearly 100 years with Chevrolet. The family members running those stores today remember the tough times and the successes.
The brand means more to them than just making a dollar. They eat, sleep and breathe Chevy. Says Chuck Brooks of Cook Motor Co. in Crawford, Ga.: "It's our life. That's what we are."
Here are some of their stories.
Ford to Chevy
A popular pathway to a Chevrolet dealership? Ford.
Frei Chevrolet in Marquette, Mich., got its start in 1913 as a Ford dealership. But by 1922, Clayton Frei was ready to say goodbye to Ford, which was pressuring dealers to take tractors to sell in order to get the cars they wanted.
"So they had way too many Ford farm tractors," says Jim Grundstrom, Frei's grandson and current owner of the Upper Peninsula dealership. "Up here where we're located, the farming season was short."
Enter Chevy, which offered the added bonus of cars available in a range of colors instead of the only-in-black Model T. The notion of those colors enamored Clayton Frei, Grundstrom says.
Down in Texas, Frank Blankenbeckler III's maternal grandfather, Y.C. Carlisle, faced a similar choice. He owned the Ford store in McGregor, Texas.
"Grandfather didn't much want to be in the tractor business," says Blankenbeckler.
So Carlisle packed up and moved to Waxahachie, where he started Carlisle Chevrolet in 1926. Blankenbeckler now runs the store, which advertises itself as the oldest Chevy dealership in Texas.
It wasn't just tractors driving the defections.
In 1926, Grovert Motor Co. in Newhall, Iowa, switched to selling Chevrolets after 13 years with Ford.
"At that time, Chevrolet had more innovations that the public desired," says Bill Grovert, current owner and grandson of founder William Grovert. He cited electric starters, floor pedals and -- again -- those colors among the reasons for the switch.
For Leon Voegeli, it was World War I that caused the change. Voegeli was a Ford dealer in Monticello, Wis., in the mid-1910s, starting when he was just 18. But he sold the Ford store after being drafted into World War I, recalls grandson Dan Stenbroten.
When he came back, Voegeli started selling cars again, buying Chevrolets from other dealers. Chevy offered him a franchise in 1923, and the deal got done in 1924.
In 1995, his family repurchased the Ford dealership. If it hadn't been for the war, Stenbroten doubts his grandfather ever would have let it go.
Early Chevy dealers had to know how to sell. And they couldn't just wait for the customers to walk in the door. Many dealers recall family stories about going out to visit farmers in their barns and fields.
Dan Stenbroten says his grandfather, Leon Voegeli, often could be found in a dairy farmer's barn at the crack of dawn.
"He always said, 'The reason I was successful is that I did so much business at 5 a.m. If you wait for them to come to you, you would have never sold them a vehicle,'" Stenbroten says. "For 30 years, he sold a lot of vehicles while someone was underneath milking a cow."
Taking care of those customers helped get many dealerships through the Depression and World War II.
But it was tough. Bob Hanigan recalls that his father, Jack Hanigan, spent a lot of summer evenings during the Depression visiting local farmers and trying to collect on past-due accounts with Hanigan Chevrolet in Payette, Idaho.
"My dad used to take horses, cows and pigs. He even took a load of popcorn in trade for a car," Hanigan says.
Jack Hanigan wasn't able to convert that popping corn into cash. But the goodwill he created came back to reward the dealership, founded in 1925.
"Many of them did become very good customers when the economy turned around, and then we sold those people cars and more cars," Bob Hanigan says.
Jack Hanigan kept that loyalty after World War II when he was a stickler for following the order on the lists of would-be customers who had signed up during the war to buy a car. Hanigan took $100 deposits from 150 customers. Service work and the interest on those deposits helped the dealership through the war years when there were no cars to sell.
The Hanigan Chevrolet tow truck
Mike Hanigan, Bob's son and the current dealer, remembers a story about a late-1950s Corvette at Hanigan Chevrolet. Bing Crosby and Bob Hope used to come to western Idaho to hunt. One year the pair borrowed that Corvette off the showroom floor from Hanigan's Uncle Dick. They drove it down a dusty road and went bird hunting. The family has a picture of Mike's grandmother hugging Crosby on a trip to California.
Cook Motor Co. in Crawford, Ga., still houses one of the first cars the dealership ever sold after it was founded in 1926. The 1926 roadster, complete with the original bill of sale, still runs and makes occasional parade appearances, says Chuck Brooks, whose grandfather founded the dealership. His dad repurchased the car in 1949.
Many dealers shared vivid memories of "announcement day," that day in early fall when dealerships would pull covers off cars and tear paper off the showroom windows to unveil the next year's new models.
Those who were boys at the time recall giving sneak peeks. "If you were a friend of mine, you had privileges," Iowa dealer Grovert says.
In its 85 years, one car Grovert Motor never sold is a 1978 Corvette, a black and silver Indy 500 special edition. It still sits on the showroom floor, never titled, with just 100 miles on it and a window sticker pricing it at $14,000. But it's still not for sale.
Bill Grovert's father Don Grovert is a bit wistful about that Corvette these days.
"I personally wish I would have driven it now in the summers," says Don Grovert, who still comes to the dealership every day at age 88. "Sure, it would have been worth a little less, but you would have gotten some enjoyment out of it. Just sitting and looking at something isn't always the greatest thing."
Longtime Chevy dealers got through two world wars and the Depression in the early decades and survived several recessions and, recently, Gen-eral Motors' bankruptcy.
But there were close calls.
Carlisle Chevrolet-Cadillac in Texas was on GM's initial wind-down list. Frank Blankenbeckler recalls getting the letter notifying him about closure -- and then being reinstated months later.
"Next to the day my dad died, the day I was notified that we would not go forward was probably the saddest day in my life," he says. "And I guess collectively the happiest day of all the people in this company was the day we found out we were reinstated."
In between those dates, Blankenbeckler was one of the dealers who testified before Congress objecting to GM's cuts. Though he still lost the Cadillac business and a Jeep franchise, he is now wrapping up a pricey renovation and expansion of the surviving Chevrolet dealership.
"It is a definite leap of faith, which we think will pay off," Blankenbeckler says.
Cook Motor Co. in Georgia also was reinstated after getting that initial wind-down letter. It's a small store, selling about 75 new cars a year, but the rural area isn't served by another nearby Chevy store, Chuck Brooks says.
"We're lucky to be here," he says.
Hanigan Chevrolet in Payette, Idaho, didn't get a wind-down letter. But the family recalls their own close call decades earlier when Bob Hanigan got a "we'll stay with you" letter from the factory. That essentially meant that Bob could continue to operate the store for as long as he wanted -- but he couldn't sell it or hand it down to one of his children.
Today, son Mike Hanigan is the dealer principal. So what happened? After years working as a computer programmer in New Jersey, Mike returned to Idaho to help his dad. They toyed with the idea of closing and auctioning everything off, but "I kind of got hooked on the business," Mike Hanigan says.
So his dad submitted the paperwork for Mike to become the dealer. GM approved it. The Hanigans speculate that GM just lost track.
"We kind of snuck in," Mike Hanigan recalls. "We got lucky really."
You can reach Amy Wilson at firstname.lastname@example.org.