AND THEN ONE DAY . . .
In early April, I drove from Rosemont, to see how it was coming together at “Algar Enterprises, Chestnut Hill,” in Flourtown. When I walked through the door “T” said to me: “There’s a guy here to see you in your office.”
“T” had built an office for me in the showroom area. As I headed toward the door I noticed “T” had a funny half smile on his face, like he had just learned something that was kind of amazing . . .
As I turned into my office, staring straight back at me with those burning intense eyes and that . . . “One step ahead of you” smile was Tom Conte!
Over ten years had passed since we had crossed paths! How the hell had this amazing moment come together?
Tom had a big smile on his face. We gave each other rough brief hugs, laughed, and pointed at each other; . . . How the heck had this crossing of paths ever come about? . . . “T” joined us, and I learned that Tom and “T” had had a good long visit that afternoon.
“So Kirk, I’ve been driving past this place for the last few weeks and I saw that some sort of car thing was coming together here. I stopped in today to see what was going on, and met “T”. He tells me you two are going to be selling European sports cars, so I asked “T” if there was room for a partner or investor . . .”
Tom went on to say: . . . “I’ve opened a place up near Quakertown with Motorcycles, Jet Skis, boats, and such, but I always liked this part of town, and then T told me you were in the deal, Kirk . . .”
Talk about unexpected surprises. I just couldn’t believe Tom Conte was here at all, let alone talking with us about our venture, and possibly becoming a part of the operation!
( . . . This might be a good time to back-up, take a deep breath, and reflect on just how incredibly fortunate I have been in my life:
First, as a grieving youngster, to have had John Jewell arrive out of nowhere;
then, Tom Conte guiding and challenging me through my drag racing days,
and, Bob Brooks as my unremitting mentor in the insurance business . . .
And now, at another crucial turning point, Tom Conte comes back into my life . . .)
From that moment on, Flourtown became an altogether different ballgame for me. Tom was a go-getter, a sharp businessman, and knew automobiles inside out.
I was filled with excitement about the prospect of Tom Conte being involved. The three of us sat down and “T” and I laid out what we were thinking in setting the business in place. T liked Tom straight off.
Late in the afternoon Tom said he was going, and told us he’d be back.
I really hoped he would.
Tom Conte quickly became a real catalyst, for “T” and me. His business savvy was just what we needed to pull the conceptual end of our “plan” into a viable business.
Tom was an infectious dynamo, and as our meetings with him progressed, the more exciting the prospect of the Flourtown operation became.
BIM, BAM! . . . JUST LIKE THAT . . .
Some of my infectious enthusiasm for the Flourtown operation must have been duly noted at Algar.
Mid-April, out of nowhere, Garthwaite, just as offhanded as you please, announced to me that he was no longer interested in having a satellite operation in Flourtown!
Bim, bam, just like that!
“T” and I had long ago set everything in motion for the Algar East deal, down to the stationary and designing our “Algar Enterprises of Chestnut Hill” logo for Flourtown; we had commissioned signs, and sent out the invitations to the Grand Opening party our the newly finished showroom. The opening was just three weeks away!
“T” and I were stunned. We couldn’t begin to grasp, what we thought would be the damage that Garthwaite had torpedoed straight through our dreams. We were sitting in my office lamenting, when Tom Conte came in.
“What’s the matter with you two?”
We told him the entire alliance to Rosemont had gone straight up the flu.
“Fuck Al Garthwaite. . .” said Tom; “I wasn’t keen on riding on his fancy ass coattails anyway.”
Tom asked “T” for a sheet of the new “Algar” stationary, and with his ever present Winston clamped in his teeth, he quickly demonstrated a talent that I certainly never knew he had. In a few strokes with his pen, exhibiting an artist’s flair, he changed the “Algar” to “Auto” and you suddenly had:
“Auto Enterprises of Chestnut Hill.”
Staying with Algar meant joining the “good old boys” club, and forgetting about the adventurous end of the business. I’d be working tirelessly to sell the Lancias, and not developing a strong used car business. Yet, I’d be enjoying an almost bottomless company bank account, the great established location, and the Ferrari & Maserati franchises. The “office” would be a lot closer to home.
But, I didn’t care one bit for the fashion in which Garthwaite had handled the now stillborn Chestnut Hill operation.
Suppose Al merely grew weary of me one day . . .
With Tom Conte coming on board, “T’s” deal, though almost insanely risky, had to be the way to go. It had the feel of an opportunity that I should not pass up. Tom, having turned up, seemed almost providential and certainly pivotal.
I’d just turned 30 years of age; it was the perfect time, to jump. Right?
After Garthwaite’s totally arbitrary, almost whimsical, decision to scuttle the Flourtown deal in a single offhand sentence, it wasn’t particularly difficult to figure out which way to go.
I resigned from Algar the next morning, packed my gear and headed to Flourtown. The relief was overwhelming; trying to have a foot in each operation at the same time had almost certainly been destined for failure.
At that point, “Auto Enterprises” took on an enthusiastic, fresh, sweep of energy. The opening party became our target date. We reissued everything as “Auto Enterprises.” We simply sent fresh new invitations just as though the earlier one’s had never been sent!
JEROME AVENUE…AS “PLAYERS”
Two weeks out Grant and I went to Jerome Avenue in the Bronx in the hope of finding a few good European cars for our opening stock. We walked the street, but didn’t see anything that appeared to have any potential for retail resale.
When we got to Stern Haskell, my new best friend, Jerry Haskell, shouted out:
“Koik, get in here, we got cars for ya.’ Who’s wit ya’? That ain’t Garthwaite is it??”
(What if it was, Jerry??)
Jerry was called away to assist his partner with a late model Cadillac that Dick Stern was dealing with. The Cadillac had just rolled through the door. It evidently had been brought in the day before, was rejected, and returned back to the dealer.
The guy who brought the car back in couldn’t understand why Stern Haskell wouldn’t buy it, and was getting quite noisy about it.
Then Dick Stern said to him:
“. . . Listen to me Larry, your fuckin’ Caddy is a ’67 with a ’66 nose clipped on it!!” Whoever fixed the damn thing stuck on a ’66 nose.” Larry still wailed on . . .
“I’ll tell you what Larry; I’ll buy your’66 nose or your’67 back end. Either one, I just don’t want ‘em pasted together; get it?”
At Stern Haskell, “T” and I put together what appeared to be a pretty good group of cars. There was a Maserati Mexico in silver with red and scarcely any miles, an early 275GTB Ferrari “shortnose” that had obviously spent too much time in Manhattan parking garages. We’d have to refinish the doors and one fender, but “T” had Dick Medicus painting for him, and Medicus was damn good.
We included three Mercedes Benz 108 sedans, and a Jaguar 3.4 sedan. Finally, we bought two 911 Porsches. We had already purchased and sold more than a few Porsches at Algar. They enjoyed a remarkable following, and the good ones were always sold quickly.
We put the whole deal together with Jerry Haskell’s son, Eddie. In spite of all Jerry’s bombastic demeanor, his son Eddie was the very opposite, very soft spoken, knowledgeable and sensible to deal with.
At one point “T” and I were introduced to a thin very quiet guy named Ronnie Tzirlin. He was an unassuming wholesaler from the Ogontz section of Philadelphia.
Ronnie would go on to become, a remarkable influence throughout my business life with these “high line” European Automobiles. At that time Ronnie worked with another Philly young man, Ray Cardonick.
They had the quintessential North Broad Street foreign used car operation in Philadelphia. Their “showroom” we discovered at a later date was literally underground in a nearly dark parking garage below an apartment building off Broad Street, nicely illuminated with 30 watt bulbs. Everyone, it seemed had taken their lighting cues from Galves on Jerome Avenue. In the Bronx the dimmer the lighting, the better, was the credo.
Both Ronnie and Ray were very sharp hard working wholesalers, who quietly, very effectively plied their trade. Just watching Ronnie Tzirlin walk around a car, if you were paying close attention, you could learn.
“T” and I were just about to buy a nearly new Mercedes sedan sitting on the street just outside Stern-Haskell on Jerome Avenue that looked spectacular. We didn’t know the seller, but the speedometer showed just 1,700 miles. The car was a 280 SE in dark blue with a cognac leather interior.
“The back end of the car is swung,” Ronnie said quietly to me, ignoring the guy.
“No, it ain’t!” shouted the seller.
“Go ahead;” said Ronnie turning hard to the loudmouth seller, “open your right rear door. It almost falls the fuck open, and the left rear door is bound up”.
“You shoulda’ told your fuckin’ frame guy to put a couple more tugs on his chains when he tried straightenin’ this fuckin’ rag out.”
Thank God, Tzirlin had lifted us straight out of the fire with that observation. I hadn’t a clue what a “swung” body was, let alone the finesse to have looked over the car the way Ronnie had. It was the beginning of a long learning curve with Ronnie over the years.
As I mentioned earlier, a guy could do well on Jerome Avenue, but you’d better be smart as a whip and wide awake every moment you were there.
Coming Next: Chapter 11, Tuesday, June 21, 2016
“275 GTB 4’s ALL AROUND. . .”
Everyone thought it looked terrific.
“I looked at this car,” Ronnie said quietly to me, “it’s been hit hard in the right rear . . .”
The seller overheard Ronnie, and said loudly: “You’re nuts asshole; you don’t know what you’re talkin’ about . . .”
Instantly, the name had a life of its own, and a damn good ring to it, that “Auto Enterprises of Chestnut Hill!” Yes! It really did roll off the tongue easily.
That night I reviewed everything that had transpired through that tumultuous day.
Both “T” and Garthwaite were paying me manager salaries. I’d have to step off one of those trains the next day.