downtown auto dealers4/13/2016
Where did they go? And will they ever come back?
Zombie Burger is located where a used car lot used to be. East Village eatery, Alba, is inside what was once Higgins Ford. Americana Restaurant and Lounge also used to be a car dealership.
The first electric car in the country was made in a secret underground workshop near where present-day Wells Fargo Arena stands.
While people are buzzing about downtown’s multitude of construction projects, it’s equally as interesting to take a look back when Merle Hay Road was a gravel, muddy mess; downtown was Des Moines’ original auto epicenter; and as many as 30 car dealerships were in the city’s core.
Somewhere along the line, starting in the 1960s, market forces caused an exodus, and the downtown auto dealers went to the edge of Des Moines and then to the suburbs. No new car dealerships remain in present-day downtown, and, surprisingly, only one remains in the entire Des Moines proper — Charles Gabus Ford.
The way things used to be, and why it all changed
Mark Vukovich, former owner of Dewey Ford and current CEO of the Blank Park Zoo, said what has happened in Des Moines is part of a larger national trend. Auto dealers across the country have been given many reasons to exit the urban core and head out of town, including a declining downtown population, a lack of space to expand, a high cost for land and relatively higher taxes due to the high cost of the land.
Vukovich remembers how his East Village lot used to be vandalized in a variety of ways. People would take off the metal gas caps and skip them across the tops of as many cars as they could. With one cap, several cars could be scratched or damaged. He said the dealership began locking the caps in the glove box and replacing them with plastic yellow ones.
Another fun hobby for downtown vandals was stealing the tailgates from new pickup trucks.
“One night I lost 37 tailgates,” Vukovich remembered.
He said the car lots learned to park their trucks backing up to one another, preventing vandals from pulling down the tailgates.
“But crime wasn’t the reason (for dealerships relocating),” said Vukovich. “It was more that business changed.”
He said it started when the downtown demographics began changing. As downtown Des Moines declined in the ’60s, ’70s and ‘80s, there was less population. Many people still worked downtown, but they didn’t want to return on the weekend to shop for cars.
There was also a lack of space.
“You couldn’t expand,” he said. “You needed more space for cars.”
Vukovich said the lack of space made everyday operations difficult. Only a small supply of cars could be kept on-site, and the rest were kept in storage several blocks away. If customers wanted to see them, they had to be taxied over.
There was also a relatively high square foot cost for the ground compared to elsewhere in the city, said Vukovich. This led to comparatively higher taxes.
“It makes more sense to build vertical downtown,” said Vukovich. “But car dealerships aren’t naturally made to go vertical.”
National manufacturers also played a big role, requiring larger and larger buildings, with more on-site supply. They also wanted every dealer to offer a quick lube service and have indoor customer delivery areas. These things were difficult to comply with due to the lack of available space.
That’s why Vukovich doesn’t think any new downtown auto dealers are likely in the near future.
“The ground is too expensive,” he says.
Few Des Moines residents know that the current Alba Restaurant was once a dealership, too.
Vukovich’s father, Dewey Vukovich, started at an Ohio Ford dealership. The manufacturer had a program for its top managers, offering them the opportunity to buy struggling dealerships.
The up-and-comers were required to make a reasonable down payment, and the manufacturer would loan the rest. That’s how Dewey Vukovich found his way to Des Moines.
“Alba used to be (Warren) Higgins Ford at East Fourth and Des Moines Street. He went belly up, and my dad bought it.” Vukovich said.
The downtown auto dealers didn’t have it all bad, though. In fact, even though they were competitors, they formed lasting friendships.
“I’m still close with many of them,” Vukovich said, noting that he has lunch regularly with Ron Brown and talks to Stew Hansen and Chuck Betts on occasion, too. He cited one fellow former dealer as a favorite. “Bill Jensen just died, and that was too bad because on a scale of 1 to 10, he was about a 14.”
Vukovich said he was more competitive with the other Ford dealers in town than other dealerships.
|Downtown auto facts
No. 1 — Iowa was No. 1 in the nation in automobiles per capita in 1916. According to “Iowa’s Automobiles: An Entertaining and Enlightening History,” by Bill Jepsen.
First things first — The first successful electric car debuted in Des Moines circa 1890 by local inventor William Morrison. It later entered the first American automobile race ever.
This is now — Three percent of new vehicle sales are electric vehicles sales. William Morrison made no more than a dozen of his “horseless carriages.” The Prius became the world’s first mass-produced hybrid electric vehicle and has annual sales of around 200,000.
Automobile legends Fred S. and August Duesenberg were German-born brothers and gearheads who were raised in Iowa. They built their first car, the Marvel, in Des Moines circa 1900. The brothers cars’ were eventually regarded as the finest cars in the world.
The Ken Garff Automotive Group bought out both Stew Hansen Dodge and Bud Mulcahy’s Jeep. The conglomerate has more than 50 stores throughout Utah, Texas, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada and California, with today’s sales totaling more than $1.5 billion.
Charles Gabus Ford is the last new car dealer in Des Moines proper and is located at 4545 Merle Hay Road.
Bill Jensen was the last auto dealer in downtown Des Moines, while William Morrison was arguably the first.
There was pressure from the manufacturer, and they competed for the same customers.
“I’d ride to meetings in Kansas City with (Charles) Gabus,” he said. “And yet I’d want to get all his business. If I could make it to where he didn’t sell a car in a month, that’d be a good thing.”
The dealers also formed the Des Moines Auto Dealers Association. The intent was to share tips on how to function more effectively, and they held joint used car sales events in the parking lot of Veteran’s Memorial Auditorium. The group even had Christmas parties together, according to Vukovich.
First things first
Bob Brown Chevrolet was the first dealer to leave downtown and move to what would later become known as the Merle Hay Auto Mile.
Brown’s main location downtown was at 11th and Locust, behind where the Central Library currently sits, and he also had a lot at 1601 Locust St., the site of the current Meredith Corporation.
Brown started in the auto industry in Detroit in the 1940s. He first worked as a factory worker in a large assembly plant, and by the 1950s, he was promoted to sales, then to manager. An opportunity arose to buy a dealership in Des Moines, and Bob Brown Chevrolet was born in 1961.
Bob’s son, Ron Brown, is the current president and CEO of Bob Brown Chevrolet. He was born in Detroit, grew up in Des Moines and graduated from Roosevelt High School in the 1960s.
Ron watched and learned from his dad, and he saw the decision-making process when his dad became the first downtown dealer to head to the edges of town in 1967.
“He knew he needed to go where the growth was in order to expand,” said Brown. “We needed to expand to keep the family business going.”
Ron later faced a similar situation and made the decision to move from Merle Hay Road to the current location at 3600 111th St. in Urbandale.
|Why Morrison’s electric car didn’t succeed
Prior to the Model T in 1908, cars were rare and not much more than a curiosity. Most were content with horses attached to buggies.
People were already familiar with steam-powered engines, but steam hadn’t proved viable for automobiles. Gas engines and electric engines entered the marketplace at about the same time and competed for market share. But America was prospering and looking for new ways to get around, and the market for automobiles was growing.
Both electric- and gas-powered vehicles entered the market about the same time period. Steam had been around awhile, but it didn’t work well for cars as they took too long to power up (45 minutes if it was cold).
Essentially, the market had to make a choice between gas or electric engines.
Gas engines needed a lot of manual efforts to drive, changing gears was hard, and so was hand cranking to start them.
Electric cars were quiet and easier to drive. They became popular and made up a third of all vehicles on the road around 1900.
All that changed with Henry Ford’s mass-produced Model T, which was a fatal blow to the electric car. In 1912, the gasoline car cost $650, while an electric roadster sold for nearly three times that ($1,750).
The dealership is one of the few that is still locally owned. This is the 55th year for the third-generation family business. Bob’s grandson, Matt Brown, is the general manager at the company’s Ankeny location.
While Bob Brown was the first to leave downtown, Bill Jensen’s Crescent Chevrolet was the last. The new car dealership’s building still stands at 555 17th St., but it’s been sold to Kum and Go and will likely be used in some fashion as a part of the convenience store chain’s new headquarters. The Chevrolet dealership also had a used car lot on Ingersoll where the present day Lutheran Church of Hope sits at 1821 Ingersoll Ave., and prior to that there was a used car lot at what is now the John and Mary Pappajohn Sculpture Park.
Jensen began his career April 1, 1949, as a bright-eyed, 18-year-old East High School graduate. He started as a “car jockey,” moving cars to different points on the lot.
“He love’d it right away,” said his wife Joann. “He did very well.”
Joann tells how her husband worked his way up the ladder from the lowest rung, to sales, then to manager before working as vice president and then eventually buying the dealership in 1980.
Many remember Jensen as the last dealer to leave downtown, but far fewer realize who the first one in was.
In 1890, the first car ever made anywhere in Des Moines was constructed somewhere under a parcel along Fifth Avenue between Grand Avenue and Locust Street. The secret basement workshop was dubbed by the car’s owner, William Morrison, as “the cave.”
Morrison lived in a hotel located where the American Republic building currently stands at 601 Sixth Ave. The inventor/chemist was more interested in developing battery technology than he was cars, but, in a way, he become Des Moines’ first downtown auto dealer. Many think he sold the first car in the history of the entire country, says auto historian Bill Jepsen, author of “Iowa’s Automobiles: An Entertaining and Enlightening History.”
Jepsen also says that long before Toyota’s Prius, Morrsion’s “horseless carriage” is thought to be America’s first electric car.
Reports vary, but it’s said the “Morrison” could only go up to 20 mph, and it required recharging every 50 miles, but this was 1890 in Iowa, and cars were non-existent. Understandably, people were impressed.
After wowing local crowds circa 1890 at “Seni Om Sed parade” (“Des Moines” spelled backward) he took his vehicle to the Chicago’s World’s Fair where he sold the buggy to Chicago-based American Battery Company.
In 1895, the first-ever American automobile race was held in Chicago.
Somewhere between 60-80 cars registered, but for various reasons, only six showed up. Morrison’s four-horsepower car with slender wheels couldn’t handle the six inches of snow on the ground and didn’t finish. A gas engine developed by the Duryea brothers won, averaging a 6 mph. CV