Lost Memphis: The Ford Motor Company Dealership and "Automobile Row" in 1911

It's depressing to think of the wonderful historical artifacts that lie hidden away in trunks, or pasted down in old scrapbooks, never to see the light of day until they are tossed in the trash or otherwise discarded. Just as frustrating, to me, are the amazing things that occasionally turn up on eBay that are treasures to local historians, but — for whatever reason — never find their way "home."

Case in point: This terrific old photo of our city's first Ford Motor Company dealership. A seller in Ohio was offering it for sale, and even though I bid fast and furiously for it, it finally sold for $90 — far exceeding my maximum bid of $12.75 (a week's salary). But at least we have this somewhat grainy scan to see what an interesting place it was.

In 1911 (the date of the photo), the Ford Motor Company was located at 444 Monroe Avenue, which was then in the heart of "Automobile Row" (Union Avenue wouldn't earn that title until years later). I pored over a 1911 city directory and got a glimpse into a bygone world of automobile dealerships and manufacturers in Memphis. Ford is still around, of course, but back in 1911 they certainly ran some curious advertisements for their cars. Calling themselves "The Universal Car," the company asked of customers: "If there's iron in your purpose — and you go to the bottom of the motor question, the chances are you'll join the army of 75,000 new Ford owners this season. It's a better car not because it costs less — but because it is worth more." Wait. What?

In these early days of motoring, drivers back then had a surprisingly large number of dealers to choose from, but you'll find very few (if any) of these makes on the road today. Conspicuously absent from the old city directory listings is any mention of Buick, Cadillac, Dodge, Plymouth, Chevrolet, or any number of other well-known brands. Instead, the Bloomberg Automobile Company, just a few doors down from Ford at 413 Monroe, offered King, Lozier, and Hupp-Yeats Electric automobiles. I doubt if AutoZone carries parts for any of those.

The Memphis Auto Company, apparently so well-known that they needed no address in the old telephone books, offered Packard Motor Cars — one of the few brands that may sound familiar to present-day readers. A block away, at 268 Madison, McDonald Auto Company sold something called a Mitchell, and back on Monroe a fellow named Harvey Luckett was the sole distributor for Chalmers Motor Cars.

Studebaker, which got its start making wagons in the late 1800s, was in the car business by now, with their Memphis dealership at 249 Monroe selling the "E-M-F 30" (described as a "touring demi-tonneau roadster") for $800, and the fancier and more expensive (at a whopping $1,100) "Flanders 20."

The Memphis Motor Car Company, at 201 Washington, must have had their lot full, with their selection of Hudsons, Hupmobile, and Stevens-Duryeas. At 51 Fourth Street, the White Company sold — what else — White Gasoline Cars (in your choice of 30, 40, or a whopping 60 horsepower models), and White Motor Trucks. The Three States Motor Car Company, which had offices in the Exchange Building but the phone books didn't bother listing where the actual car lot was, offered Regal Motor Cars in two models: "underslung" and "standard."

The Chickasaw Motor Car Company, located on High Street between Washington and Adams (pretty much where the inspection station is today), was one of the largest dealerships in town, selling Columbia, Cartercar, and Republic automobiles. And accessories, too, including Ajax tires "guaranteed for 5,000 miles." How would you like to buy a new set of tires every 5,000 miles? And with few of the roads paved, tires didn't last long at all.

And finally, as a reminder that we really weren't too far removed from the days of the horse and buggy, in 1911 the Lilly Carriage Company (197-213 Union) ran ads proclaiming they were "manufacturers of all styles of carriages, high-class delivery wagons, and solicitor's buggies."

Not a trace of any of these old car dealerships has survived to this day. The Ford Motor Company looks like it was located in a handsome and substantial building, but at some point it fell to the wrecking ball. The big Hostess factory stands on the site today. 

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Famed Memphis trivia expert Vance Lauderdale answers reader questions weekly here on his blog!

About This Blog

Ask Vance is the blog of Vance Lauderdale, the award-winning columnist of Memphis magazine and Inside Memphis Business. Vance is the author of three books: Ask Vance: The Best Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History and Trivia Expert (2003), as well as Ask Vance: More Questions and Answers from Memphis Magazine's History Expert (2011) and Vance Lauderdale's Lost Memphis (2013). He is also the recipient of quite a few nice awards, the creator of several eye-catching wall calendars, and the only person we know with a vintage shock-treatment machine in his den. 

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