The grand avenues of American cities often doubled as the streets of automotive retailing grandeur in the years between the First World War and the Korean War.
Dubbed “automobile rows,” many magnificent dealerships lining these avenues were architectural marvels, often designed by noted architects. Depending on the building style of the time, facades were of limestone, terracotta or brick. Most buildings were multi-story, rather than subsequent single-floor dealerships that spread over a city block with open-air lots.
Today, these old urban auto rows have largely departed from the automotive scene, their historic buildings converted, abandoned or dismantled. When the buyers' market evolved in the 1950s, dealerships followed their customers to the suburbs.
It is wondrous, though, to view remnants of the old way, notably San Francisco's Van Ness Ave. Here, some automotive brand name signs may have changed from American to European or Asian, but elegant dealership buildings amazingly carry on.
Some other notable auto rows around the country included Detroit's Cass Avenue, Boston's Commonwealth Avenue, Louisville's East Broadway, and South Figueroa in Los Angeles.
Ellis Brooks Chevrolet on Van Ness in San Francisco is housed in a building dating to 1917.
Marie Brooks, dealer principal, says her late husband founded the dealership in 1939 as a Studebaker outlet. It switched to Chevrolet in 1953 and moved into Van Ness location in 1963. But, according to Mrs. Brooks, Van Ness's auto row began with the reconstruction of San Francisco after the famous 1906 earthquake and fire.
“Once San Francisco had 35 new car dealers — including three Chevrolet dealers on Van Ness — but now there are only eight in the whole city,” she tells Ward's. “All of them are on Van Ness or South Van Ness.” Surprisingly, a new Ford dealership has been opened at the corner of Van Ness and California avenues.
Another classic example of a survivor is Detroit's Dalgleish Cadillac. on the north end of Cass Ave., near General Motors Corp.'s former headquarters on West Grand Boulevard of Detroit's New Center area.
The handsome three-story Dalgleish dealership is catty-corner from the site where Cadillac Motor Co. first began assembling cars in 1902. Technically, the dealership address is on Woodward, a block to the east.
Douglas Dalgleish Sr., dealer principal with his brother Chuck, says architect Albert Kahn Associates designed the facility in 1927. The original client was Argonaut Realty, GM's real estate arm, and it was designated as a Buick zone office and factory branch. A 1936 photograph shows the edifice displaying a “Buick Straight 8” sign. A 1941 city directory describes it just as a Buick factory branch.
Other dealerships south along Cass included Pontiac, Chevrolet, Studebaker, DeSoto, Chrysler and Buick plus a number whose brand could not be determined from the stores' names listed in the 1941 directory.
In 1922, when the Motor City's industry recovered from a post-WWI recession, Cass Avenue's auto row began many blocks to the south — towards the downtown area — with Potts Motor Sales, a Haynes dealership.
Heading north along the avenue — which a century before had marked a boundary of the farm of Lewis Cass, Michigan Territorial Governor and 1848 Democratic candidate for U. S. President — a motorist would have found dealerships for Buick, Winton, Columbia and other makes, as well as tire stores and other auto-related businesses. Nearby Woodward Ave. was home to Liberty, Franklin, Marmon, Nash, Paige, Willys-Overland and Pierce-Arrow stores.
There's little evidence remaining today of the Woodward dealerships. Along Cass, many handsome old dealership buildings remain — but not as dealerships.
Many of the buildings near Wayne State University have been acquired by the school for various purposes, including the campus police force's headquarters and garage.
As the sole survivor of a glorious past, Dalgleish Cadillac is an interesting archaeological example of historic multi-floor dealership designs.
The broad showroom and service entrance are at street level, connected by ramps to offices, new car storage/prep and light repair facilities on the second, and to heavy service including the bump, or body-repair, shop on the third floor. There also is a ramp to the basement storage area.
The facility is large and compact, but presents management challenges because everything can't be seen easily with the sweep of an eye, says Douglas Dagleish, whose family includes four generations in the business.
Members of his family have been new-car dealers since Doug and Chuck's father obtained a Nash franchise in 1922. They added Buick in 1936. In 1964, the family took over the Cass Avenue location with the Cadillac franchise to serve nearby executives in the old GM Building.
For many years, GM provided its upper ranks of management with a new car, traded every few months, as long as they also owned a current-model GM car.
This perk brought Dagleish and nearby GM dealerships a lot of sales and service revenue, but was decimated in 1999 when GM moved its headquarters from the 1920 vintage building on West Grand to the Renaissance Center three miles away.