F ew automobile companies have survived nearly 105 years, but that’s the story of the Ford Motor Co. A lot of time, decades of history and a myriad of changes and innovations have occurred in that 105 years.
Few dealerships have seen it all. And two legendary Ford vendors were around before there was even a Ford Motor Co. Longevity is an important factor in the relationship between Ford and its customers, and dealers helped to forge that relationship. It all began when the first early Model A Fords were rolled out of the Mack Avenue plant, the first Ford factory.
The Willaim L. Hughson Co. sold this 1903 Ford Model A, which was among the very first Ford Motor Co. cars sold. A representative from Hughson’s dealership is pictured behind the wheel.
Among the dealerships that have been in for the long haul are Tenvoorde Ford of St. Cloud, Minn.; Diehl Ford of Bellingham, Wash.; and Wray Ford of Bossier City, La.
Steve Tenvoorde had a Milwaukee Steamer of his own to drive around St. Cloud not long after Henry Ford rolled out his Quadricycle. Tenvoorde, a champion bicycle racer and bicycle dealer, decided to get moving with horseless carriages in 1899. He sold them from his Bicycle Headquarters shop that he’d opened in 1895.
Tenvoorde was the second person to sign up with the new automaking venture proposed by Henry Ford and his partner, Alexander Malcomson. That was on March 21, 1903 ‘ even before there was a Ford Motor Co.
In 1903, he began selling Fords, though not exclusively. He offered best sellers Oldsmobile and Buick plus Oakland before there was a General Motors, and he also sold cars made by Saxon and Chandler. He promoted sociability runs, a type of club gathering for early automobile owners.
Early in the Model T era, Ford Motor Co. discouraged its dealers from selling anything else but their product, so the days of multiple brand offerings went the way of the tiller and carriage wheels. The Ford Motor Co. mandate wasn’t an easy one, but Steve Tenvoorde persevered.
In 1910, he opened a Ford sales building in downtown St. Cloud. He had a way of capturing headlines ‘ whether in an automobile or on a bicycle. And he also invented a dolly-and-jack combination that brought attention to the Tenvoorde dealership.
In 2007, Steve Tenvoorde’s descendents still are selling Fords ‘ making them the oldest family Ford dealership in the nation.
But Tenvoorde Ford wasn’t the first Ford dealer. That honor belongs to the late William “Billy” Hughson, a machinery parts supply company owner who, like Tenvoorde, was fascinated by bicycles. In 1902, the Buffalo, N.Y., native traveled from his adopted home in San Francisco to attend a national bicycle show at Chicago.
There, Hughson met Henry Ford and was charmed by both the man and the light four-wheeled vehicle Ford was promoting. Hughson was so excited that he promised to buy $5,000 worth of whatever vehicle Ford would make.
Ford was easing out of his racing partnership with Tom Cooper and was moving on with new partner Alexander Malcomson. Ford and Malcomson were trying to get an automobile company going with the vision of producing what they called the “Fordmobile.”
It was a struggle to get financial momentum going, and Ford knew he needed enthusiastic people like Hughson to make his venture a success.
Hughson returned home to San Francisco, fired by the idea of selling light, reliable automobiles and spent the next months finding investors to fund his promised $5,000. Meanwhile, Ford and Malcomson continued to struggle, nearly failing in their Ford-Malcomson Ltd. venture.
By the summer of 1903, when Hughson had gathered his money from investors to pay for the new cars and traveled to Detroit, something new was brewing.
Ford and Malcomson Ltd. was now undergoing a complete revival. The partners were seeking financial backing for their revised company, thanks to Malcomson’s uncle, prominent Detroit banker John S. Gray. Ford still didn’t have cars to give Hughson, but he wanted him to consider another proposition with the money.
According to historian Robert Genat, Ford wanted Hughson to invest in the new company and offered him and his California partners a chance to get in on the ground floor.
While Hughson was delighted with the prospect and believed in what Ford was doing, his investors wanted cars, not a promise of the future. Hughson reluctantly passed and later received 12 1903 Model A Fords plus exclusive rights to the West Coast sales territory of the new Ford Motor Co.
Unfortunately, the Model A’s probably seemed more like an albatross in the early days when cars sold slowly. The Model A’s sat in a warehouse in San Francisco for three years. When the Great Earthquake of 1906 occurred, the Fords were pressed into service, often as ambulances. That helped jump start awareness of Fords and interest in them along the West Coast.
Hughson and his investment partners probably paused in 1919 when they read the news about Ford Motor Co. stock being bought up by Henry Ford.
Original Ford partners John Anderson and Horace Rackham each had invested $5,000 in the fledgling company in June 1903. They each earned $12.5 million when their stock value in Ford Motor Co. was purchased in 1919. Hughson and partners would have earned at least the same amount had they invested in the new Ford venture.
Instead, Hughson earned praise and success as the pioneer Ford Motor Co. dealer. Hughson died in 1969, after some say he influenced the birth of at least 120 car dealerships in the western United States.
Many also worked for Hughson and spun off to success as Ford dealers, including the colorful John Henry Eagles, who, at 96 in 1972, was the oldest Ford dealer at one time, still another mark of longevity.
Bob Diehl understands longevity as well. His grandfather, Hugh, got into his Ford dealership in 1908, just in time for a new Ford called the Model T. Just a couple of years later, someone made a trade in. It was a slightly used 1907 Model R that was turned in for a brand-new Model T.
One way or another, that Model R has been part of the Diehl Ford picture for the past 90 years. It was used in parades and kept at a former dealership building and was almost destroyed by fire in 1948. It was kept, in pieces, for the next 40 years, and then underwent an off-and-on 15-year restoration.
“It was originally black ‘ the R came in black or green ‘ but everyone likes red,” explained Bob Diehl, the third generation of his family dealership.
Today, it’s restored and an ongoing symbol of longevity for the third oldest family-owned Ford Motor Co. dealership.
Also understanding a long-term relationship is Wray Ford. Early in the 20th century, George Wray Sr. kept an automotive livery stable for various owners with a partner named Dickinson in Shreveport, La. It was something of an automobile livery stable that originally sold Hupmobiles. Fords were added in 1911 as the Model T gained popularity. And Hudsons and Packards were also sold at one time. Wray and Dickin son also rented cars by the day.
The Model T changed the lives of many people around the world and influenced the way the Wray family did business as well. Model Ts were sent to various locations, like Louisiana, broken down in railroad cars, with chassis, fenders and bodies separated for shipping. Dealers paid the shipping charges, took the Model Ts out of the boxcars and re-assembled them for sale.
In 2000, Wray Ford moved to new facilities at Bossier City, La., and was honored as one of Ford’s special group of oldest family-owned dealers.
From the original Model A in 1903, through the entire Model T and second Model A era, to the V-8, the Sunliner, the Mustang and many other great Ford products, a handful of loyal dealers, sprinkled across the country, have been there, proudly selling and servicing Fords for generations.