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Rise and Fall of Jennings Ford

As a veteran automotive writer, I've always been fascinated by the countless examples of multi-generational families in the automotive business.

As a veteran automotive writer, I've always been fascinated by the countless examples of multi-generational families in the automotive business.

It is fairly common among dealers and even notable among traditional American auto manufacturers, where the sons or daughters or even grandsons or granddaughters of factory workers not uncommonly rise in the ranks of management.

A new twist on the second-generation automotive phenomena came to my attention at a National Automobile Dealers Assn.-hosted gathering of Detroit's Automotive Press Association.

Julie Candler, who has been honored by journalism peers for her pioneering role as the first female Detroit auto columnist for a national magazine (Women's Day), related that her father Frank Jennings's original Ford dealership facility has been honored as well: admission to the National Register of Historic Buildings by the U. S. Department of Interior's National Park Service.

The dealership building, erected 1919-1921 by Jennings Ford near the state capitol in downtown Springfield, IL, had long been out of the auto business when the Illinois National Bank purchased it, lovingly restored the property and applied for National Register recognition of the facility.

While the Jennings Ford structure is not the first old dealership building in the nation to be recognized as an historic structure (a number are in all-encompassing “historic districts” for instance), it's arguably the first to share honored recognition with a dealer daughter.

It also symbolizes some of the downsides in the history of dealer-factory relations.

Frank Jennings, a treasured Ford Motor Co. employee in its early years, was rewarded with the valuable Springfield franchise. He opened his dealership on August 15, 1915.

That was the year following Ford increasing workers' pay to $5 day and two years after launching the moving assembly line. Cumulative Ford production in 1915 reached one million, the first miracle of the new automotive age.

After World War I, Ford urged its dealers to build “monumental” dealership facilities, and Jennings responded with the building at 431 South Fourth St. in Springfield, taking out a $200,000 mortgage to do so.

The building, decorated in terra cotta, was typical of the new multi-story norm for urban dealerships in the 1920s: showroom, offices and a service entrance on the street floor, new vehicle inventory, storage and even the used car department on the two upper floors.

A vehicle-sized elevator was included to move cars to the upper floors. Unlike today's dealerships, nothing was outdoors.

I recall as a teen in the late 1940s prowling the upper floors of a De Soto-Plymouth dealership in Louisville, KY, where my father bought several cars. Even the body shop was on an upper floor.

In Springfield, trouble started soon after Jennings opened his new 45,000-sq.-ft. facility.

First, a new 2-story Chevrolet dealership opened next door. (Fourth St. became the heart of Springfield's “auto row.”)

Then, Ford began pushing its urban dealers to sell farm tractors. The auto maker simply shipped tractors to the dealers and expected them to go literally far a field to sell them.

Finally, Ford Motor Company allowed another franchised Ford dealer to open only a few blocks away in downtown Springfield.

Dealer concerns about factory actions go back a long way.

For Jennings, the acute sales war with Chevrolet (magnified in the mid to late 1920s) and a long Ford shutdown in 1927 to retool for the new Model A hurt his ability to stay solvent.

Jennings Ford went bankrupt at the depth of the Depression in 1933, to be replaced by S. N. Glisson's Springfield Ford-Lincoln dealership.

Before Illinois National Bank acquired the former dealership building in 2004, it had also been used as a garage and storage facility by Illinois Bell and the State of Illinois.

Now, handsomely restored, it provides space for several banking operations and is part of the overall rehabilitation of downtown Springfield. The one-time Chevrolet dealership next door also is being restored.

TAGS: Dealers Retail
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