Tredyffrin Easttown Historical Society
History Quarterly Digital Archives

Source: April 1993 Volume 31 Number 2, Pages 65–76

Reminiscing About the Matthews Ford Agency

James G. Matthews

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"Just reminisce," I was told -- and that is just what I am going to do. I was born in Paoli on July 30, 1912, so I'm not exactly a newcomer to the area. I've seen a lot come and go.

But before I start to talk about Matthews Ford and the automobile business I'm going to show you something that has been in our family for a number of years. It's a small metal plate, with white letters on a red background:

This should take you back a good many years, 150 years or so ago. At that time a group of Willistown farmers formed this association -- if my memory is correct, it cost a farmer a dollar a year to belong to it -- and this protected him if his horse was stolen. If the horse was stolen, the Association paid for the horse. Not only did it pay for the horse, but it prided itself on trying to find the person who stole the horse, recovering the animal, and then returning it to its rightful owner. This sign belonged to my grandfather, R. F. Matthews, who was a member of the Association.

But I'm here to talk about the automobile business and the background of the Matthews Ford agency in Paoli. The agency started in 1921. That's the date of the first Ford contract.

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First I'd like to give a little bit of Matthews family history -- because this is a family business. It was started by an uncle of mine, Walter T. Matthews. I started with the company in 1933, sixty years ago this summer. My son Dick, Richard S. Matthews, is now president of the company, and my son-in-law, F. Claire Hughes, entered the corporation in 1968. So it is a family business.

My great-grandfather, Thomas Matthews, moved to Paoli in 1842. He had come from Ireland, and then went down to Kentucky before coming here in 1842. Robert F. Matthews, my grandfather, was less than two years old when they moved to that farm in Willistown. (The farm is now known as the Cooper Willits farm; it's the last farm, going out South Valley Road, before you come to the corner where Leopard Road comes in -- the old Robinson Corner, we used to call it. It's the farm on the right-hand side of the road.) The Matthews family owned that farm from 1842 until 1898, when it was sold by my grandfather to a family by the name of Lisle. The Lisles were there until about the time of World War II -- I can't remember whether it was 1943 or 1945 -- when some people by the name of Schnedecker moved in. They were there for only a matter of three or four years, just a short time, when W. Cooper Willits bought it, and he's still there. So the farm has had only four title changes beginning in 1842, more than 150 years! (And Cooper Willits says that he is going to die there. Thomas Matthews also said that he was going to die there -- and he did.)

My father, J. Garfield Matthews, was born on that farm. My uncle, Walter T. Matthews, was born on that farm. In fact, quite a few members of the Matthews family were born on that farm.

My mother was born just around the corner from the old school house on South Valley Road, on the left-hand side going towards Leopard. Both she and my father attended that little one-room school house for eight years. So both my parents were local people.

When my grandfather sold the farm in 1898 he moved into a large house on the Paoli Pike, where Dr. Huff's offices are now. That was the house that was built for the Matthews family to live in after the sale of the old homestead on South Valley Road.

Prior to the sale of the farm my grandfather also bought a store in Paoli. It was located at the corner of Spring Street and the Lancaster Pike, about 100 yards east of where the Paoli Pike goes off the highway. My grandfather and two of his sons -- J. Garfield Matthews, my father, and Joseph Matthews -- ran that store -- it was a grocery store -- for a number of years. Walter T. Matthews also worked there.

My mother and father later lived over the store, and all their children were born there. That is where I was born, up on the second floor. There were six of us -- five boys and one girl -- all born on that property. (Back at that time the Lancaster Pike was a stone road; they put oil on it during the summer months to keep the dust down.)

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As I said, my grandfather bought that store prior to the turn of the century, and he operated it until 1916, when he sold it to a man by the name of Knight, from Malvern. At that time my dad moved up to where the Depot Shoppes, the shopping center developed by Joe Palmer, are now. The house we lived in was located on what is now a part of the Burger King property, and his business was on Plank Avenue, behind that property. He operated a coal and lumber business there, and we stayed there for about two years.

From there we moved to Anselma; it's known as Chester Springs today, up on Route 401. We moved up there in 1918, in February, with horses and sleds to carry everything. It was an old frame house. It had no running water, no electricity, none of that sort of thing that we were used to in Paoli, so it was a real country adjustment. You might ask, "Why did we move up there?" The answer simply was five boys and one girl, and Dad wanted to get us on a farm to learn how to farm and milk cows. And that is surely what we did!

I came back to Paoli in 1933, took a summer job with my uncle, selling Ford cars. At that time you didn't have a drawing account or salary: you sold or you didn't bother to go to the pay window. Maybe that's good experience for a salesman; I don't know, but that was the way I started out in those days. Back in 1932 and 1933 we were beginning to sell cars again. I enjoyed the business, and I stayed in it.

When the store property was sold in 1916 Walter T. Matthews did not go into the other family businesses. He decided he wanted to go into the automobile business. He got his start in Berwyn with J. W. Fell, who had a Chevrolet agency there. (He later also operated the school buses for Tredyffrin Township.) The building where he had his agency in Berwyn is still standing, just beyond the bank, almost across from Fritz's lumber yard. Walter Matthews worked for him for about a year, getting his feet wet in the automobile business. Then in 1917 he moved back onto Spring Street, near where the store property was, into a little one-story, one-car garage. He sold some Maxwells there, and repaired cars. (The building is now torn down.)

The garage on Spring Street where Walter T. Matthews opened for business in 1917

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The blacksmith shop, later known as "Dalton's Garage", to which W. T. Matthews moved in 1918

By 1918 the growing business required more space, and so he moved to a one-story garage farther west on Lancaster Avenue, next to where the Huggler insurance building that was just torn down was located. For a while it was known as Dalton's Garage: Tom and Vince Dalton, the road builders, used it to store their equipment and so forth. My uncle had his garage in there during '18, '19, and the start of the '20s, and got an Overland franchise -- the "puddle jumper".

Then in 1920 he built another building; it's now the western part of our present showroom building, where the rental office is, and the ramp that goes up to the second floor. He operated from there from 1920 to 1924. At that time Allen C. Hale, who later became the Buick dealer in Wayne, was the Ford dealer for Berwyn and the Main Line, and he needed help servicing "the country", as he called it. So my uncle was made a sub-dealer to sell Model T Fords in Tredyffrin and Easttown townships. That was his territory. Then on February 11, 1921 he received a franchise directly from the Ford Motor Company. It is now the oldest Ford franchise in Pennsylvania, and some of the Ford people have told us that we hold the oldest franchise in the United States today, but whether or not that's true I do not know.

Three years later he built the present showroom building and moved into it, in 1924. (The construction of it actually started in 1923.) During that period the Model T Ford was the number one car in the country. Ford tractors also came along real strong; Henry Ford took quite an interest in the farm business, and got into the tractor business in a big way too. (Ford also made airplanes, a big plane with three motors. A couple of times my uncle had one flown into the Paoli airport over on Swedesford Road, or to Sky Haven which was located on the north side of Paoli Pike about where the East Goshen Park is now, for a large display and exhibit of Ford cars and tractors.)

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When the Model A Ford came out it was quite a revolution. The Model T you drove by pushing your feet; you had no levers or gear shift: you'd move your feet to make it go or stop or go up steep hills or go backwards in reverse. (It really was the start of what we call automatic transmission today.) But the Model A was a gear shift car, a modern piece of equipment. (One other thing: believe it or not, Henry Ford said that you could have the Model A in green, blue, red, or whatever color you wanted it; the Model T came in any color, just so it was black.)

I'm going to tell you one little interesting story about that 1928 Model A. My uncle invited me to come down from Anselma to go with him over to Newtown in Bucks County to have Christmas dinner over there. (I think maybe I was his favorite nephew.) So I came down on Christmas morning. Around eleven o'clock in the morning my uncle pulled over to the curb to stop at the traffic light at the intersection of DeKalb and Main streets in Norristown. There weren't many people out on the street on Christmas morning, but there were a few out there and they started to assemble all around this Model A Ford. Of course, the more they assembled, the more he liked it. About noon I had to walk up to the top of the hill to the police station on the left-hand side to get a policeman to come down to get us out of town. I remember that so well. That was the reception that the Model A got when it first came out in 1928.

So you can see it was quite a change from the Model T.

When the Model A came on the road we were honored to receive the first Model A Ford sold to a dealer in the United States. You might ask, "How did Paoli rate that?" The reason we were awarded that first car was because in 1927 we sold more tractors than any other dealer in the United States. Its block number or serial number was "A-1928" -- that's the same number that you have on your car today that's about twenty numbers and letters long.

I'm going to make one more comment on that car. After we sold it, eventually it was owned by Wharton Esherick, and he wrecked it. It sat outside by his studio for a while before he decided it was beyond repair. So the motor was taken out of it and, for sentimental reasons, put upstairs in what we call Maggie's room, where we store everything. Now in World War II, W. T. Matthews headed up the local scrap drive campaign -- there was a pile of scrap at what is now the Sunoco gasoline station, right across from the old Presbyterian Church; some of you may remember how big it got, with metal and scrap iron -- and he ordered me one day to take that Model A motor out of our scrap bin and put it on the junk heap. I argued with him, but of course I lost the argument. How glad I would have been to have had that old motor running on our showroom floor when we had our 50th anniversary back in 1971! But maybe it did more good where it went than I would have made out of it.

At that time we got our cars from Chester. The Chester plant, down on the river, started in about 1928, and Ford continued to produce cars at that plant until about 1952 or 1953. It was an assembly plant; they did not make any parts there. The parts came in on railroad cars every night. Emergency parts were picked up at Paoli every morning, brought in on the Red Arrow that came straight through from Detroit.

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A big stake-model truck would be at the Paoli railroad station every morning to pick up emergency parts needed to keep the assembly lines running.

The last Model A was sold to a dealer in 1931. Then came the V-8. You could still get a 4-cylinder engine in those days too; they called it the Model B. They continued to produce the Model B for only a year or two more, though, and then turned to the V-8 exclusively.

The first car I sold after I came aboard in 1933 was a V-8. It was a business coupe, and cost $565. I sold it to a man named Clarence Rice, who lived up in Byers and worked in the creamery there. I've sold that family cars for three generations now. That was my first sale.

As I said, I started in "33. At that time George Hammond -- we always called him ,"Pop" Hammond -- was the parts manager. (He was Cass Tollinger's father-in-law.) When he took sick in the middle of the summer of '34 I was put in the parts department to take "Pop" Hammond's place. He was tough to follow, because he had been there for years. Fortunately, the parts business then wasn't as tough as it is today. We had only two books -- the Model A book and the V-8 book -- but now the parts manager has books and books and books, and computers all over the table, for all the models and changes. It's a professional job today.

So I was in the parts department for a while, and that was all right. I also continued to sell cars every night -- the selling bug obviously had bitten me. I lived right there by the garage, and after I closed up the parts department and had an evening meal I would go back over to the showroom. I enjoyed selling.

In 1936 -- that was two years later -- my uncle fired the service manager one night, and on the following Monday morning I took over the service department. So I went from sales to parts to service. I continued to oversee the service department and sell until World War II came along.

I went into the service in 1944. I ended up in Europe in the 258th Engineers Combat Battalion. We were on the north flank in the Battle of the Bulge.

Walter T. Matthews died while I was overseas in World War II, suddenly, of a heart attack. After his death his widow, Edna S. Matthews, kept the business going with the help of several faithful employees: Myrtle Hall, Walter Turpin, Ed Pyle, and Brantley Hartman. (She was a former school teacher in the Tredyffrin-Easttown High School before she married, and later was a school director in Willistown Township for many years.)

I returned in 1945 and found only six people in the organization, what with defense work, people in the service, and so forth. My brother Earl and I started to reorganize the business, and on January 1, 1946 we formed the corporation Matthews Sales Company. We started to rebuild the organization, and that was a job.

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In 1946, '47, and '48 the cars of all the manufacturers were simply "reruns" of the pre-war models. The changes in styling and engineering that have been so gigantic since then did not start until about 1949 and 1950.

There was a terrible back order for cars after the war; we had 400 and some orders, with deposits, for cars we couldn't deliver. Each dealer had a number or quota, and we couldn't win no matter what we did. We'd get five or six cars a month -- ten at the most -- and the orders just piled-up. , That's not the way to run an agency. (I told our people never to do that again. Before you do business, make sure the cars are there!)

We got our first 1949 models in either June or July of 1948. In those days, you may remember, when a new model came in a dealer would always soap the showroom window so that nobody could see it until a certain date; you didn't show pictures of it when you advertised in the newspapers, and kept it a big secret. It was a big circus-type thing. There would be just one car in the showroom, and on announcement day you'd wait for the people to come in to see it. There were so many who wanted to see that new 1949 model that we could not get them into the showroom that night. And we had just one car in there. (There was only one other instance when we had a crowd like that. It was the most exciting new car showing in my life, about 15 years later on a lousy February night. We had the Phillie Phanatic in the show room, on a pickup truck. I had to get the police that night. The Phanatic did a fantastic job; the kids would get up on the truck tail-gate with him, and it was very successful.) But back in 1948 all we had in the showroom was that new 1949 model.

In 1949 and the early '50s dealer sales grew by leaps and bounds. Production had more or less caught up with demand and sales, and we were back to the normal way of doing business. We soon realized that if we were going to keep up we would have to do some expansion.

The first building we built was a gasoline station, across from the showroom on the north side of the Lancaster Pike at Greenwood Avenue. It was built in 1949. The front was a gas station, and we got the lubrication and wash bays out of the main building. (The building is now the used-car office, and the bays take care of servicing the rental fleet, which I'll talk about later.) That worked out all right for a few years.

Then we bought the Greenwood property, on the north side of the Lancaster Pike, across from where the post office is now and extending up to where the Burger King is located. There were three buildings on it that had to be torn down to make space for us to build the present service department. That building was occupied in 1953, forty years ago.

With this new facility we really re-organized the service department to do a much better job. Before that we operated the service department out of the showroom building, up the ramp on the second floor. We also had three or four bays down on the first floor. It was a tough way to operate. Over at the new modern service building the cars can get in and out easily and the equipment is all in one spot, and it's a real pleasure. As a result, the service business grew and grew.

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Then we immediately found out we needed even more room. So we came back over to the ground between the State Road, old U. S. Route 202, and Route 30 and bought the ground where the Huggler office building was. We tore it down -- there were a couple of other houses that had to come down too -- and that gave us room for the rental fleet and new car parking lot, and also some customer parking.

Now I'd like to talk a little about the philosophy of the customer relationship of an automobile agency. You know, when you are buying a car you can buy a good car from almost any dealer, regardless of make. And if you want to buy a Ford car, there are several Ford dealers you can buy it from. So if we want to get your business and keep your business, all that we have to sell is service. And we have worked on that theory for a great number of years. We're now serving the third generation of a lot of customers because of this tradition.

In 1948 the Ford Motor Company started what was called its Four Letter Dealer Award, based on the slogan "Ford Must Stand First": sound Finances (you couldn't quarrel with that in 1948); efficient Management; competitive Spirit; and modern Facilities. That was the basis on which a team of three or four would come out and judge a dealership and whether or not it should get this coveted award. It started out in 1948 and was continued for ten years. Then they awarded a ten-year award to the dealers who had won this award for ten years in a row. We won it all ten years.

Following that, Ford changed the criteria slightly and started what it called the Distinguished Achievement Award. This had pretty much the same requirements, but they put one little "curve" into it -- customer complaints.

Ford Motor Company's Distinguished Achievement Award, won by Matthews Ford more than 25 years in a row

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All complaints were analyzed: if the problem was the Ford Motor Company's fault, it wasn't charged against the dealer, but if it was the dealer's problem and he hadn't taken care of the complaint properly, then it was charged against the dealer. If a dealer's percentage of complaints that were his fault -- not the car's fault -- was higher than the district percentage, he did not get this award. A lot of the big streamlined dealers, selling a lot of automobiles, simply could not win this award because of complaints. By the mid-1980s there were only three dealerships in the United States that had won this award for 25 consecutive years--- Harbaugh and Harbaugh, out in Ohio; Rice and Holman, in Merchantville, New Jersey; and Matthews Ford in Paoli. There were only three of us. (Unfortunately, since then each of us has missed once; Harbaugh and Harbaugh in about 1985, Rice and Holman in 1988, and we missed out in 1989, though we've earned it again every year since then.)

So we have won these awards every year but one since they were started. From 1948 on we missed out only one year -- which we still cry over.

Now I'm going to talk a little about Matthews Sales Company today. Altogether, we have about 60 people today. (We have operated with as many as 70, but you know the shape of the automobile business these past few years, and we've cut back the same as other businesses. Whether you are small, middle, or big you've had to cut back.)

Seven people now operate our parts department. Our inventory is now a little over a half a million dollars -- and you'd be surprised at how many parts we still don't have in stock. (In 1971 our inventory was $100,000 of parts, but of course we've had inflation since then.) Our monthly sales in parts runs from about $175,000 to $200,000. (It will be nearer $210,000 this month; that bad Monday morning we had that ice storm a couple of weeks ago [mid-January] was real good for the parts department! )

In the service department we have a total of about 40 employees today. The department is also very much computerized.

It's not easy to find good mechanics today. All we can do is hire somebody who wants to get ahead, and then work with him and train him. The tech schools do a good job, but at a certain level. If somehow, when they turn that boy out, they could tell him he doesnft know everything and that now he's ready for on-the-job training, it would help. But so many of them get discouraged when they can't do the work they want to do. To start with, a mechanic has to use his time as well as his knowledge, to get a job in and out on the road again.

We're tough on the training of all our mechanics. They have to spend at least one day a month -- two, if the service manager can let them -- over at the showroom building with training films, because there is new stuff coming out all the time, and you've got to keep up with it. I hope that none of you has had a breakdown on the road in a modern car: I don't care what make it is, if you have a breakdown on the road today in an automobile you're in big trouble. It's absolutely frustrating.

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No matter who comes out -- Keystone, AAA, or what -- they can't do much for you. There is too much complexity under that hood for them to do much today.

In 1950 I started the first pension plan by a Ford dealer in the Philadelphia district. I asked myself, "Why should anybody want to work for me without a pension plan?" All the big companies had them. So back in 1950 we started a pension plan and profit sharing. I think that has done a lot to help build our service organization.

Today we sell about a thousand vehicles a year, new and used. We have been as high as 1200 a couple or three years ago, but as you know things are off a bit. The small business man today has a real problem in the costs he cannot control -- taxes, heat, light, various things of that sort, that eat him up -- and the gross just does not grow enough to carry the expenses he can't control. (Some expenses you can control, but it is tough.) We are in the black, but a lot of agencies are not. Paying income tax still has been one of our problems even in the past few years.

Now I'm going to talk to you about our sister corporation, Matthews Leasing Company, which we started in 1962 with three cars.

We do lease some new cars, for 12 months, 24 months, 36 months, 48 months, either through Ford Motor Credit or Fidelity or whatever. But most of the business of Matthews Leasing Company is one-day or short-term rentals, local renting. (The biggest difference between local renting and Hertz or Avis, for example, is that the car you rent from us must come back to Paoli; if you want to drop the car off in Florida you can't rent it from us.) It's a fast business, in and out quick, and 90 per cent of it is credit card business, which is good as far as we're concerned.

We now operate about 50 passenger cars in our rental fleet, just the passenger cars. They are the daily rental stock. We also operate anout 35 to 40 trucks -- pickup trucks, panel trucks, 14-foot long box vans, which are very popular on weekends for people who are moving, and you'd be surprised at how many people are moving all the time and do their own moving. Then we operate about 40 club wagons -- we call them club wagons in our business; they're somewhat like an airport limousine unit -- that seat 15 people and a driver. They are very much in demand out here. We're the only people with a very large number of them --a lot of agencies have only five or six -- and we find it a very lucrative part of our business. They are used on weekends for football games, baseball games, by all kinds of church groups. During the summer we double the number, to about 75 or 80 units. The summer camps that come out here often want six, eight, ten of them. But just like a horse eats oats if he's ' not working, we have to cut down the fleet right after September or we'll have too many. (We may have too many right now as it is, but you can't make any money operating just on Saturday and Sunday, and when you have the customer clientele built up you can't turn it down. That's not the way to run a business. And, in fact, the weekend before last [mid-January] we had all 40 of our club wagons out on the road!)

All our club wagons are "de luxe", fully equipped, everything on them you can get. The kinds of service we are renting them for, they don't want any "plain janes". No way!

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You'd be surprised at the number of Philadelphia companies that come out here regularly to rent our club wagons: the Philadelphia Zoo, Drexel, the University of Pennsylvania, Villanova, Bryn Mawr Hospital, the Hahnemann Hospital, churches out of Philadelphia -- and many, many others.

I'm going to give you one little interesting story about the churches: a friend of mine, an automobile dealer in the upper Main Line area, had made two reservations for a church in Philadelphia, I'm going to say five years ago, maybe it was ten years. (Now you know, when we're booked up tight and somebody doesn't bring a car back on Friday night, on Saturday morning we're short a vehicle. But the customer has a reservation, and he wants the vehicle. No argument there. Maybe a car even got wrecked the night before. Those things happen in tight reservations, and it happened to my friend.) So he called me and said, "Jim, I need help; I need help. There's this church in Philadelphia has two units spoken for and I have only one." I said, "Send them over; I'll take care of it. Do you want me to charge you or rent it directly to the church?" He said, "The church is all right, rent it to them." I happened to wait on them when they arrived over here. I went up and brought this wagon down. The other fellow had gotten one from the other dealer, and it was a plain jane. So the guy says, "Hey, look at what I got! Look at what I got!" And that particular church has rented from us ever since! I've told my buddy about it many times!

The leasing is a very good unit for us, very good.

Now I'm going to talk a little bit about people, because I think people are the most important thing that we have. That's what makes the difference -- the people.

I'd like to recognize some of our people. There's Myrtle E. Hall: she started with us in 1924 and stayed until she retired, almost 40 years. Gerry Slaymaker was with us over 40 years. George Ford: I hired him in 1936 in the parts department, and when he came out of the Seabees after World War II, I put him in as service manager, and he was also with us until he retired, 50 some years. Neil Griffith, our present service manager, came aboard in 1955. Carl Hahn, our general manager, started in 1962; Tommy Robinson, in 1960 -- his father also worked for us for years and died suddenly one day on the job. Dick Matthews, my son, who is now president, started in '61 and now has 31 years in. Miles Stevens, our shop foreman, has been with us 27 years. Claire Hughes, my son-in-law, has 25 years in; Sue Hayes, our officer manager, has over 20 years with us. Joe Hill joined us in 1961; Janice Seay in 1961, and there are a number who have been with us more than 20 years.

Longevity means an awful lot to me. I've been here for almost sixty years myself -- not many of them are going to be here that long -- but I like longevity. The customers comment, "I talk to the same people I talked to the last time."

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It's a people business; it really is. We have a product, but everyone else has a product too. It's a people business.

Back in 1971, in our 50th anniversary booklet, we said,

"People. That's our 50 year story. You might call them 'personnel1. We call them 'people'. A reporter recently asked a rather penetrating question ... 'Why do you think you've been in business since 1921?'

"We turned to often-heard remarks from our customers and friends for that answer. Our customers say it's our people ... It's our distinctive way of doing business ... No pressure - No brashy promises ... Just lots of professional know-how ... Service after the sale.

"We like to think of the words Walter T. Matthews used so often: Fairness - honesty -- integrity, and "the Golden Rule1."

If that was true in 1971 -- and we thought it was or we wouldn't have published that brochure, it's more true today. To get people who are dedicated to doing the best job they can do is a challenging job for management today. We work at it religiously.

Drawings by Meg Fruchter


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