They were the dream merchants of their day. Men who sold Parisians of the 20th century a piece of the America that everyone wanted.
New car dealers were more than just businessmen in the decades from the 1910s up through the 1970s. They were the providers of the sleek, sporty automobiles that reflected how the country was changing and growing.
And, downtown Paris was a busy hub of the car industry.
While this generation might only be familiar with sprawling dealerships located on large tracts of land conveniently reached by main streets and highways, there was a time when new car dealers pitched their tents in the downtown area. A trip into town for many Paris residents in those years might mean going to the grocery store or druggist, and then passing by the car lots to see what new vehicles might be in town.
Joe Mahan Ford, Bob Cole Motors and Gillespie Motors were among the new car dealers once located downtown.
A 1993 article about the auto industry in Paris that appeared in The Post-Intelligencer noted that E.E. Davis purchased one of the first automobiles seen in the county in 1911. He wrote a check on the Bank of Henry to Moon Motor Car Co. of St. Louis and the car was later brought here by rail.
Judging from the $1,358.50 price Davis paid, the automobile was thought to be in the high-priced luxury range. The vehicle could have been an Oldsmobile or a Maxwell, according to the article.
It wasn’t long after that when local men started becoming dealers here. Don Dumas Jr. and Ben Diggs were believed to be the first dealers in the county. Dumas was one of the owners of Henry County Auto Co., which was the county’s first Ford automobile franchise. It was located in a building at the corner of Fentress and West Washington streets, now owned by the Paris Board of Public Utilities.
It’s hard to picture now, but that building was actually a place where a different kind of transportation could also be bought. While cars were sold on one side, horses and buggies were still being sold on the other.
THE GOLDEN AGE
As the economy boomed after World War II, there was naturally an increase in the number of new car dealers here.
Ford and Chevrolet were the dominant brands then, and, by the 1950s, automobiles were becoming necessities even in rural areas. Any consumers with enough money for a reasonable down payment could buy a car for as little as $1,800 if they wanted to do without a radio and other extras. There were more new car dealers in that decade than Paris ever had at a single time.
Despite the number of dealerships located in Paris, though, a buyer might wait for weeks or months for his preferred new automobile to be shipped from Detroit.
It was an era when some consumers who had seldom owned any car other than a standard Ford or Chevrolet, began to shop for more expensive brands. In the immediate years after World War II, for example, more Packards, Hudsons, Studebakers and Nashes were seen on county roads than ever before.
Owners who had previously bought Plymouths were seen switching to the more luxury Dodge, Chrysler and DeSoto makes. Buicks and Oldsmobiles became more popular than ever in Paris.
True, the higher-priced cars were gas guzzlers, but when you could buy gas for 22-28 cents a gallon, economy cars were on the minds of few people.
Ed Covington, who came here from Mississippi and bought the Chevrolet/GMC franchise from Porter Chevrolet, recalled in 1993 buying a Cadillac from a Memphis dealer for $2,800. It was the first Cadillac with air conditioning in Henry County.
Before Covington sold his franchise in 1981, he and other new automobile dealers saw a dramatic price increase in new automobiles. Closing costs by then had climbed from the $2,500-$3,000 range to as much as $6,000-$8,000 and beyond, and continued to spiral.
Bob Cole, who bought an interest in the Chrysler-Plymouth dealership from the late D.B. Owens in 1953, recalled in the 1990s that, by the early 1960s, new car dealerships began to leave downtown locations in favor of the suburbs.
“For years automobile businesses were mostly in downtown and it was more convenient for customers, even though (lack of) space became a problem.”
Owens & Cole Chrysler-Plymouth was located in the center of the block on the south side of East Wood Street between Brewer and Poplar streets. Cole remembered that Tom Leach established the city’s first Chrysler dealership in 1922 on Brewer Street in the building now occupied by R.J.’s.
Also occupying a downtown location for several years was Diggs Dodge Motors which was located on West Wood Street.
Covington Chevrolet Co. was located in the large building beside the NC Railroad at West Washington and Fentress streets. The Ford dealership owned by Pled Brisendine, and later by Mahan, was then located on East Wood Street across from The P-I, now occupied by the Henry County Boxing Club.
Seth Russell also operated his Pontiac dealership within easy walking distance of the courthouse and downtown businesses. Russell Pontiac was located in a building at the intersection of East Blythe and Dunlap streets, now a parking lot for Ridgeway Morticians.
By the 1950s, a shortage of space had become a problem for Russell. He joined the growing trend of dealers and moved from downtown.
Charlie Tigert, later a member of the Metro Council in Nashville, operated a Studebaker dealership on East Wood Street near Blakemore Street. A combined Studebaker-Packard dealership was later operated by Crawford Chenoweth in the 1950s.
At one time during the 1950s, Fred Travis and Bill Rainey operated a Packard dealership on North Market Street.
But like the rest of the dealers, space (or lack of space) and convenience became dominant factors in locating their businesses. If dealers had more than a dozen automobiles for sale, they likely needed more space than any spot in downtown Paris could manage.