Shortly after the Dodge brothers founded their namesake car company in July 1914, they gave franchises to 25 dealers to sell their first car, the Model 30, billed as a more upscale competitor to the ubiquitous Ford Model T that cost $100 less.
All but one of those franchises have either folded or been sold to non-family members. The last one that is still owned and operated by the original family is Tator's Dodge in South Salem, NY.
But Chuck Tator, the current owner of the Dodge franchise, is clinging to the business by his fingernails, fighting to keep Chrysler LLC from revoking the 94-year-old franchise.
Although a Chrysler spokesperson says there are no current plans to do so, Tator says he feels threatened enough to have hired an attorney, who specializes in franchise law, and is bracing to do battle to keep his business afloat.
His grandfather, George T. Tator, who died in 1953, obtained the franchise with assets of $800 and a horse.
“Chrysler doesn't want mom-and-pop stores around anymore,” Tator says, referring to the efforts of U.S. auto makers to reduce their dealership numbers, particularly stores considered as under-performers.
Tator's store is one of the smallest-volume Dodge dealerships in the country. He says he sold 26 vehicles last year. The Chrysler spokesperson says it was closer to seven.
But Tator's is one of the leading service facilities in the eastern U.S. for the powerful Dodge Viper sports car, drawing customers from all over the region.
“We currently service almost 200 Vipers, with owners coming from all over to our shop,” says Tator, himself an accomplished mechanic.
“Bigger dealers don't want to deal with Vipers. I don't know why, but many dealers send me their problem Vipers to work on. Even the Dodge zone office in Tappan, NY, sends me problem Vipers (to fix).”
Vipers are indeed the lifeblood of the Tator operation. “We do a tremendous Viper parts business, shipping parts around the world and to every state in the union,” Tator says. “Today, I talked to two Viper owners in the U.S. and another in Switzerland.”
Tator dispenses free advice and maintenance tips. (“It's good for business, and if they need a part, they call back.”) He gets phone and Internet orders from Viper owners in faraway places such as Japan, Kuwait, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.
His grandfather sold only seven Dodges in 1914, his first year in business. Sales soared to 20 in the second year. He eventually became a Dodge distributor and sold 250 cars in 1928, including sales by satellite dealers.
Those dealers came to Tator's to pick up their cars that arrived by rail from Detroit. By the 1960s, Tator's annual sales dropped to about 140 vehicles at the original store and a second store that was opened in Brewster, NY, by the founder's son, George Tator Jr.
The second store closed after George Jr. died. The founder's other son, Charles, inherited the present business. He is now 81, and his son Chuck (Charles Jr.) now runs the original store.
But the new-car business steadily has declined during the last couple of decades.
“About five years ago, Chrysler (representatives) suggested that I sell my dealership because it's just a nuisance to them,” Tator says. “They also said I should sell more cars in this area and demanded that I increase sales by 20%. They even threatened to withhold new cars if I didn't reach that quota.”
Chrysler's dissatisfaction with the store continues. A Chrysler attorney recently sent Tator a letter, demanding he increase the working capital of the business.
“Working capital is the only thing we haven't matched, because it's set up for dealers who sell 150 units per year,” Tator says. “Our dealership has never been able to match that, but Chrysler has never tried to enforce (that) before.“
Chrysler wants Tator to deposit about $90,000 more in his working-capital account with them. He's resisting on the premise “they could just take the money and still close me down.”
Tator claims his quaint-looking, clapboard dealership with a weathervane-topped cupola is up to date in every other area, including training.
He only has three employees, a woman who runs the business office and two mechanics, father and son Rob Hoellman Sr. and Jr.
Rob Sr. has been with Tator's for 17 years. A previous mechanic, Leo Gustafson, worked there for 64 years.
Chuck Tator was age 11 when he began working in the shop. After four years in the U.S. Air Force, he returned to work for his father. Chuck still works in the shop, but he is also the only salesman in the dealership.
And he is not ready to quit. “I'm not thinking of selling,” Tator says. “There's tradition and history here. This size dealership really works. If we were any larger, we couldn't offer the personalized service we're noted for.”
He says his dealership consistently ranks high in customer satisfaction surveys, a source of considerable pride to him. He blames Chrysler for his small sales numbers.
“The people in this area want imported cars,” he says. “Almost every vehicle parked in the high school lot is an import. I blame Chrysler for not catering to young people the way Honda (Motor Co. Ltd.) and other imports do.”
The high-school students' parents have tastes that favor imports of the luxury kind.
Located on its original site, a parcel about 50 miles (80 km) north of New York's Times Square, Tator's Dodge in Westchester County is surrounded by some of the most expensive residential real estate in the country.
Luxury import brands such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Lexus are in driveways throughout the area of horse farms and mansions, owned by the likes of corporate CEOs and celebrities.
Tator's Dodge is very much like an old-fashioned country dealership, where the owner likely is found working on a car. “There's not too many places like us anymore,” Tator says.
There is no showroom. Only four '08 models are on display in front of the store when a visitor stops by.
“I usually try to keep one of each model in stock, six to eight vehicles on display,” Tator says. His biggest current seller is the Caravan minivan. The Ram pickup is second and Viper third.
He says that he's sold several '08 models but is reluctant to order more because he still has some '07 vehicles left and two '05 models “that I can't sell even at reduced prices.“ However, he has ordered a “lot of Vipers and two Challengers.”
Tator finances his inventory through a local bank, rather than with Chrysler Financial Services. But he notes that vehicle sales are a small part of his operation.
“Service has always been the main part of our business,” he says. “About 85% of our business is service and parts.”
Powerful Dodge Vipers Are This Dealer's Passion
Dodge Vipers are the greatest passion for Charles (Chuck) Tator Jr., owner of Tator's Dodge, a historic New York dealership dating to 1914.
He is active with Viper owner clubs and races the 600 hp sports car at Lime Rock, CT, and Pocono, PA racetracks on occasion.
Twice a year, he flies to England for a week at a time to hold seminars and to service cars that belong to members of the Viper owner's club of England. “They treat me like a movie star when I go over there,” he says.
Another Tator specialty is his work on antique and historic vehicles. He personally owns a '53 Chrysler Windsor, '94 Viper, '96 Indy Dodge pace truck, '71 Triumph, '73 Dodge Dart, '41 Army Chief Indian motorcycle, '41 Army Scout Indian motorcycle and '76 Honda gull-wing motorcycle.
“I also own a handful of dirt bikes,” he says, and a couple of boats, including a 58-year-old mahogany Chris Craft.
Tator's Dodge sponsors a Viper rally each spring at the dealership. There were 137 Vipers at the 2004 rally and 85 in 2005. The 2007 rally was postponed because Chuck Sr. was seriously ill, but he has recovered to the point where his son has tentative plans to hold a rally in May.