Early dealers did final assembly
At Edwards Chevrolet, part of the job was mounting the body on the frame
When Leon Edwards' father became a Chevrolet dealer in 1916, the Birmingham, Ala., retailer had two employees and his vehicles arrived partly assembled in railroad boxcars.
"My father did the selling, and he was the bookkeeper. He had a mechanic and he had a porter," says Edwards, recalling what his father, Sterling Edwards, told him about Edwards Motors Co., which later became Edwards Chevrolet Inc. "They had to go get the cars off the railroad track and bring them to Birmingham. The frame wasn't attached to the body. That's how they shipped them."
Celebrating its 95th anniversary this year, Edwards Chevrolet is among the nation's oldest Chevrolet dealerships.
Edwards, the dealer principal, took over the reigns of the store in 1962. He declines to reveal his age. He continues to operate that store and Edwards Chevrolet 280 Inc. in suburban Birmingham, with his son, Lee, who is general sales manager of the family business.
Sterling Edwards was 21 when he left home in Gadsden, Ala., a small town about 50 miles from Birmingham, seeking a job in the retail auto industry in 1911, the same year the Chevrolet brand was born.
Sterling Edwards' father -- Leon Edward's grandfather -- was a doctor who became too ill to work; his mother was a homemaker. A teenage Sterling had taken odd jobs before and after school to help support the family until he finally dropped out of school.
Unable to support his parents, Sterling Edwards packed his clothes, got on his motorcycle and headed for Birmingham. "That was the big city," says Edwards, recalling what his father told him.
Living in a YMCA in downtown Birmingham, Sterling Edwards took a job as a bank teller after being turned down for a job selling Fords at a local dealership. "They said he was too young," Edwards says.
But he had a desire to sell cars. A year later he landed a job at Brownell Ford in Birmingham. He did well selling vehicles. He made even more money by buying and financing them for some of his customers.
Four years later, Sterling Edwards had saved $5,000. He jumped at the chance when Chevrolet offered him a franchise in 1916. Edwards Motors Co. was founded.
During the Depression, Sterling Edwards managed to keep his business afloat by cutting expenses, focusing on parts and service, and "I'm sure he had to lay people off," his son adds.
When the United States entered World War II, vehicle production and sales were suspended as the auto industry turned its attention to building tanks, planes and other war material. Sterling Edwards sold used cars when he could get them. Again, his service and parts operations became the center of the business.
"Used cars were really hard to find in those days because people couldn't afford to give them up," Edwards says. "So we had to rely on the service and parts department to fix cars people couldn't replace."
The dealership survived -- and later thrived -- in part because it minimized employee turnover by offering competitive pay, profit sharing and retirement plans. Edwards' general manager will celebrate his 50th anniversary with the dealership in 2012. Several employees have been at the dealership for 25 years. That, in turn, helped with customer retention.
Over the years, Edwards helped six employees purchase their own stores. He invested with them and then let them gradually buy out his interest in their stores -- a practice that also helped him attract talented managers.
Following in the footsteps of his father, who was a state director with the National Automobile Dealers Association in the 1940s to 1970s, Edwards was the 1995 NADA president.
Edwards, is an avid boater and fisherman, but fishing in retirement is not on his agenda: "I've been a dealer so long I can't imagine what I'd do if I retired."
You can reach Arlena Sawyers at firstname.lastname@example.org.