The last consistently appealing ads of note in Philadelphia were coming from a Mr. Rodney Scattergood III, at a fashionable downtown Pine Street address. Mercedes Benz, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Bentley etc. were being offered as estate sale items, with a clear indication that circumstances were dire for the surviving heirs, and one should get there as quickly as possible as the “estate” had to act swiftly!
Most of the European car dealers in the Philadelphia area were merely running advertisements stating what brand of automobiles they were selling, their address, hours etc. None of them were bothering to check the New York Times on a Wednesday or, more importantly, any Sunday to see what the boys in New York and elsewhere might be up to. It struck me that a strong advertising and marketing approach may well kick start Garthwaite’s business. And yet, there were several other things that stood in the way of all this blue sky I was painting.
Eight years of selling life insurance for the Penn Mutual Life Insurance company had been very good to me, and I loved virtually all of the people with whom I had worked.
Every damn thing I knew about making my way in the business world I had learned under their incredible tutelage and guidance, and I would be leaving these very special people behind.
I remember thinking very seriously that I’d better be damn sure I wanted to do this and I’d better be certain I had a real shot at doing the job the right way.
AND THEN A BULB LIT UP. . .
The whole situation pretty much came together the following evening! As I left to have dinner with “T”, I was sure I was going to grab the ring at Algar. But during dinner, “T” and I almost simultaneously had the edges of an idea that might make good sense for all concerned. I believe it was “T” who first spoke up with the idea that if I was going to be the sales manager at Algar, why shouldn’t he, “T”, come on board in a sales capacity?”
As finances were not an issue for him, as such, he would be able to learn the business first hand at Algar, and develop, or not develop, automotive sales skills.
With Algar’s operation, it was as if we were receiving scholarships to the “University of European Automotive Selling.” Grant would work on straight commission. There would be essentially no risk for Garthwaite.
For both of us it would be a case of arriving at the top. Just stop and think about it: two young guys who really loved cars, and maybe even knew a fair bit about them, let loose in a showroom full of very expensive Italian automobiles, both managing, and selling all manner of great cars in that palace of an agency!
The idea of the two of us leaping from the frying pan made me feel a good deal better about the whole idea of making the change, but my jump from the frying pan to the fire was still a great deal riskier than “T’s”.
I made an appointment to see Al Garthwaite. Al knew I was somewhat caught in the switches with the offer from “T”. I broached the idea of “T” coming to Algar as a commission salesman with Al.
Al knew “T” and he liked him. They were both private school educated, Social Register, proper clubs, etc. He thought it was a swell idea. “Let’s wrap this up and get it underway”.
We shook hands, and just as simple as that, I was on my way. I took the following two days to square up things in town. Carl Oxholm was great about it. We agreed I’d keep a part time presence with the insurance agency.
JANUARY, 1968 HOLY MOLY, ANDY, HERE WE GO!
I started on a Saturday morning, mid January 1968, Grant would start the following Tuesday.
I clearly remember that first January morning that I started: it was brilliantly clear and cold as ice. I arrived at 8 AM. I was very nervous as I came through the door. I didn’t know anything about anything, including what I should wear. So, I’d showed up in a suit, tie, overcoat, etc.
The door was open and the heat was on, but I didn’t see a soul. Someone finally emerged from one of the semi-enclosed offices on the west side of the building. He was a tall, scholarly looking, fellow, red-haired, with glasses, and a cropped beard.
He wore comfortable khakis, sensible shoes, and a Shetland wool sweater. “Good Morning” he said. His head tilted back just enough to let me know he was looking me over, top to bottom. He pushed his glasses back just a bit, to let me further know it wasn’t simply a cursory glance.
“You look like you’re here to sell something. Won’t be anyone here to sell it to ‘till about 10:00,” he said. “Even if you do sell it, whatever “it” is, you’ll have a tough time getting paid for it.” He added, “Not easy to get a check out of this place.”
And, that was my first encounter with Philip A. Tegtmeier.
“Uh, well, Good Morning, I’m Kirk White; I’m, uh, not selling anything. I’m starting work here today. Is Jim Ferguson in yet?”
“In around 9:00, usually,” Phil said.
Then, he let me up for a bit of air.
He smiled, lightly and said, “Good Morning, I’m Phil Tegtmeier, and I’d heard you were on your way in here. Want a cup of coffee?”
And we proceeded to get to get to know each other. Yes, he had heard that I was coming aboard. He told me that at the present time the place was pretty much of a wealthy boys club, where a great group of Al’s cronies, pals, buddies and hangers-on were having a high old time in the Algar automotive playpen.
As new expensive Italian cars were coming in, Al’s various pals would like one vehicle or the other, trade whatever it was they were driving at that moment and drive off in the latest vehicle.
Phil told me the mathematics involved in a good many of these deals made no business sense at all, and that a good many of the trades were having birthdays, having been booked in so badly. We went over the new and used car inventories. Algar certainly had enough Lancia’s!
At 9:00 AM when Jim Ferguson arrived, he seemed to know who I was, and that I really was due there for work today. Jim took me through the entire facility, again reviewing both the new car and used car inventories.
This was going to be a tougher deal than I’d imagined. It had never occurred to me that the place may well be nothing more than a “boys club.” It was looking more and more like Al was beginning to come out of the ether a bit, and realizing the bloodletting of cash couldn’t go on forever.
Jim Ferguson and I went down into the lower part of the building, and toured the service area. I was first introduced to a young man named George Hughes. He was a big strapping, serious, young man, with a handshake that would shatter a bowling ball. George came to Algar on special occasions when no one else could sort out a given problem. Time would show us that George’s career with truly great old thoroughbred automobiles would be the stuff of which legends are made.
Next I met the notorious, and infamous, Roy “Axle” Gane. Even as a rookie I knew who Roy was. He wrenched here at Algar, but when the call came, he was at Roger Penske’s side as the chief mechanic on anything Roger was racing. Roy was tough as nails, brilliant, and he looked at most everyone in a way that said, “Make it brief, I’m busy.”
Finally I met a very young Mike Tillson. At least Michael had the ability to smile. He stopped what he was doing deep in the engine bay of a 330 GT 2+2, and shook hands. He eyed me as if I might be there to sell him something, like, well, life insurance, perhaps.
Jim Ferguson told him I’d be upstairs in sales, and that seemed to make it easier for Mike. Today, of course, you’ll know Mike as a successful automotive businessman who has enjoyed many years in the field of great cars, and he was an accomplished racing driver in both early 911’s and Lancia Fulvia’s.
As Jim and I returned to the sales floor, Al Garthwaite was coming through the front door. He too shook off the cold, and looked at me as if he wasn’t quite sure who I was! Then there was a flicker of recognition and he greeted me warmly. Gaining rapid, recognition from Al took a while, I discovered over time.
Well, it took a bit of time for the entire place to get used to the two “new guys”, but it all settled in, and Algar had the room to allow a couple of new players into the fold. Reviewing the customer base with the company comptroller, it was quickly evident that we needed some fresh prospects coming through the door. We had to put a number of changes in play to blow the cobwebs out of the building.
Very shortly thereafter I hit one of the really lucky patches in life.
I called the New York Times classified department to place my first modest advertisement in the Sunday New York Times. My call was taken by Gloria Wolford who was a brilliant layout artist, and she walked me through every nuance of a “reach out and grab you” advertisement.
She taught me all the terms, various fonts etc. She was a gift for this rookie and we worked together for years and years. We crafted an effective small, yet engaging ad for the following Sunday and Wednesday.
The Comptroller had turned over to me a file folder filled with prospective customers. The sketchy details were on 3 X 5 cards. I’d address what to do with them after I’d gotten my feet firmly on the ground.
Past that, Phil, Grant and I took hold of the place and made bold moves to square things up. The biggest agony was getting the deadwood out of the used car inventory.
This involved dealing with a whole new segment of the automobile business for me: automobile wholesalers. They would step in and buy almost anything. As a lot they were mostly hardworking, very smart, no nonsense.
In trying to bring Algar’s inventory into line through wholesaling some dinosaurs, I got to meet some amazing characters.
One of the sharper characters that we dealt with was Bob Dimmerman. He was a good wholesaler, and it was very educational watching him at work buying a bilious slab of an automobile that you were flogging. By the time he was finished critiquing, we were damn glad to have him take the hulk along at whatever pittance he was offering.
JEROME AVENUE. . .
Then one day Bobby Dimmerman drove up in a brilliant orange Maserati Sebring. It had a story, as so many European cars did. It had been whacked in the right front corner. It was repaired adequately, but regardless of the price, I knew that Maserati Sebring’s were a tough sell. I passed on the car, but was curious as to where he’d turned it up.
“Jerome Avenue. I got it from Dickie Stern at Stern-Haskell.”
I didn’t have the foggiest notion where or what “Jerome Avenue” was or who “Stern-Haskell” was. A determined effort turned up the fact that the “The Avenue” was, indeed, an active marketplace where one might turn up all manner of automotive esotery.
Anyone who actually went to Jerome Avenue though had better be very, very sharp about automobiles and possess the acumen to wade through a minefield of potential disasters.
There were many edgy cars that could easily attract an unsuspecting rookie or even a fairly knowledgeable dealer. There was more than a bit of “smoke and mirrors” in operation up and down the street.
So, one quiet morning, I took a ride. The string of wholesale dealers on the “Avenue” was easy enough to find, Many of you may have passed right under “Jerome Avenue.”
Jerome Avenue is located in the south Bronx, smack in the middle of one of the highway Hells of America. Just after crossing New York City’s George Washington Bridge, heading east from New Jersey, you snake under the streets and buildings rising above.
Quickly the I-95 highway sinks into a long dip. At that point you’re squarely in the south Bronx, and bang, there’s your Exit for “Jerome Avenue.”
This portion of I-95, indeed the entire neighborhood, is an area where you don’t dare have an automotive breakdown of any kind. Any automobile that has to be left, for even the shortest time, on that bit of I-95 would quickly become a picked carcass.
The Jerome Avenue exit put you right in the thick of “the Avenue.”
The neighborhood was largely comprised of run down, cavernous warehouses, stretching up and down both sides of Jerome Avenue in each direction.
Easily, 15-20 dealers were in place up and down the street. Thousands of cars changed hands there. Automobiles were everywhere, and the rumbling elevated railway trains running down the middle of Jerome Avenue constantly rattled and lurched overhead.
There were so damn many cars stacked up in the street that you could only creep your way down one lane of Jerome Avenue in either direction, right under the noisy el. Parking was nearly impossible. In front of the warehouses, cars were double and triple parked.
I found a parking spot on a side street, and began to tour the Avenue. Most of the dealers were dealing almost exclusively in American cars: Galves, Stern-Haskell, Sandy Wallach, Murray Brand, John Horan and a few others had some European cars.
Communication was held to a minimum. If you walked into a place you might get a “Help ya’?” (And of course they couldn’t help me since I hadn’t a clue as to what I was doing there!)
After a full walk up and down the street, I recognized the Galves name, as they also published the Galves Price Guide, both European and domestic editions.
The Galves European Price Guide was toted by most of us who were dealing with those cars. I had welcomed it as I came into the job, but it covered only the common European makes and models. It was always hopelessly under the money, and made no distinctions as to the condition of an automobile. The few “adds” and “deducts” in the book were of no use. It was the crudest of baselines.
I walked into Galves. It was nearly a dungeon, very dark with a few dim bulbs hanging here and there. All the cars I could see were used American, nothing European. There was no way of telling the condition of a vehicle, as they were stuffed up against each other so tightly throughout the building, I could scarcely get between them. I remember thinking, that if I bought a car way in the back of the building, how would they ever get it out for me?
No one came forward from the darkness to see if I might want something. I remember standing there thinking:
“How the hell can you make a buying decision about any automobile lurking in these dank caves?”
Across the street from Galves, I spotted a big outfit named “Stern-Haskell.” Now there was a name I’d at least heard of. I crossed through three rows of parked cars, ran under the rumbling elevated train trestle, and dodged through three more rows of parked cars on the other side of the Avenue to reach the sidewalk in front of Stern Haskell. Once there, I found myself in front of a bustling business.
Stern Haskell was housed in a vast warehouse fronting on both Jerome Avenue and a side street. The place had lots of open overhead doors, activity, workers, and a fully staffed office in the front corner of the building.
When I took a step inside, a guy was shouting at one of the many characters I’d seen on the street pulling kid’s red wagons full of tools. I had thought they must be mechanics who wandered the Avenue, doing repairs.
“Barry, 800 on that Caddy you’re next to, 2200 on the green Olds, 4700 on the Grand Prix over there.”
Barry ducked his head in the Caddy, stood up and yelled back, “It’s only got 1400 on it!”
“It’s your money.” With that, the guy opened the driver’s door and ducked up under the dash of the Caddy.
At that point, I stopped and tried to think of just how many of those little red wagons I’d seen up and down the street that afternoon! While I was absorbing all of this a booming, growly voice just behind me asked loudly,
“Can I help you, sonny?”
Damn, I nearly flew straight up in the air. I turned around and found myself staring at the quintessential Jerome Avenue wholesaler: the legendary Jerry Haskell.
Probably 60 years old, hands on both hips, he was eyeing me with a withering look of near disdain. Balding, larger than life in every way, with a basso profundo voice that would bend metal two blocks away. He had this weary, curious look, likely saying to himself, “What in God’s name is this “tah bag” doing here on the avenue?”
“No, no thanks, I just came up to take a look, see how it works up here.”
(. . . Groan, can you hear yourself, Kirk?!)
“You in da’ business, kid?”
“Yes, down in Philadelphia.”
“Whata’ ya’ sell down in Philadelphia, kid?”
“Uh, I’m with Algar Enterprises in Rosemont.”
“Whata’ ya’ got? A lot or a place? Ya’ sell anything new?”
“We’re dealers for Ferrari, Maserati, and US distributors for Lancia.”
He backed up a step, squinted his eyes and burst out laughing. In a voice that was meant for the entire neighborhood he shouted out:
“Lancia? You’re fuckin’ kiddin’ me, kid! You own da’ joint, this Algar?”
“No, I just went to work for Al Garthwaite; he’s the owner.”
“Al Garthwaite? Dat’s da’ fuckin’ guy that Billy Bliwise laid out! Bliwise sold that fuckin’ Lancia franchise and all ‘dem useless old Lancia parts to Garthwaite for $50,000! Jesus, I can’t believe you’re sellin’ that stuff!”
(In today’s world, $50,000 doesn’t sound like anything more than weekend money for a wealthy man, but in 1968 the same money would have bought you at least six Ferrari 250 GTO’s !)
Haskell’s voice then rose to stadium level. He yelled out so loudly, it seemed to physically move me backward:
“Dick, dis’ guy works for the schmuck that bought all that Lancia junk from Bliwise when Bill was wit’ Chinetti.”
He was directing this shouting broadcast to Dick Stern, his partner, who was standing well inside the building.
Dick Stern was the polar opposite of Jerry: tall, urbane, turtle neck sweater, sport jacket, slacks. He looked like a successful new car manager. Stern fielded the broadcast as if he’d experienced more than a few of these verbal windstorms. Of course everyone in the joint had to stop and peer at the asshole with Jerry. Probably very few even knew what a Lancia automobile was.
At that point, Haskell seemed to realize he’d about turned me into a pile of ashes right there on the street. He wheeled around, stuck his hand out, put a smile on his face, and said,
“I’m Jerry Haskell kid; what’s your name?”
At that point he hooked his arm through mine, leaned in and noisily confided in his grumbly voice:
“Listen Koik," (I had told him Kirk, but ever thus, Koik it would be, with Jerry,) "we get all them fuckin’ high line European cars through here".
"We get Maseratis and Ferraris from Grossman and even from Chinetti, when they need da’ fuckin’ money. Ya’ follow?"
"We even got one of them Lamborghini’s over there along the wall. Jake Kaplan can’t sell that many from up there in fuckin’ Rhode Island! This is where the action is, Koik!"
"We got plenty of fancy ass cars here kid. You got any checks wit’ you today?”
“No, Jerry I just came up today to see how it worked.”
“When ya’ come back kid, come see me or Dick; we’ll treat you right, Koik."
"Koik, you know Sammy Ingerman, Ronnie Tzirlin, Ray Cardonick, or any of ‘dem other Philly punks?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Stay away from ‘em kid, you need cars, you come here. Follow me, Koik?”
On the way home I was pretty shell-shocked. I’d never experienced anything like Jerome Avenue. I never realized that literally thousands of cars rapidly traded hands on the Avenue, almost within the blink of an eye.
But, as I drove along, I was smiling. Jerome Avenue really struck me, it could be a real pirate’s marketplace, but it appeared to also be a vibrant and viable trading place for both buying and selling all varieties of automobiles. That is if, and I do mean if, one thoroughly watched their step and knew what they were doing!
Well, I had certainly represented my new employer well that day!
I’m sure Al Garthwaite would have been thrilled with his new-found notoriety! The next day I related to Grant my Jerome Avenue adventure, but skipped the part about Al’s experience with the Lancia Franchise purchase. I needed to hear that story from more substantial sources before I breathed a word of it.
One morning I asked Jim Ferguson if he knew anything about a large cache of Lancia parts.
“Oh, God yes, the third floor is awash in them.”
Later in the day I wandered upstairs to the third floor of the building, and sure enough, there were literally heaps of Lancia bits, tons of sheet metal, boxes and boxes of obsolete items. There were only two complete, very compact, small displacement V-4 engines.
I hadn’t a clue as to what the engines were for, but they appeared to be quite elderly. There were enough Appia doors to provide spares for every Lancia Appia in America and most of Europe!
Coming Next – Chapter 10
". . .Getting Caught in the Switches. . . "
Tuesday, June 7, 2016