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Vol. LXIII, No. 21
 
Wednesday, May 27, 2009
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Belle Mead Garage Loses Franchise After 74 Years as a Chrysler Dealer

Jean Stratton

After 74 years as a Chrysler Dealership, Belle Mead Garage, is one of nearly 800 Chrysler dealers across the country (40 in New Jersey, with a possible loss of 1500-1600 jobs) to lose their franchise.

“This was a blow, of course,” says owner Christopher (Kip) Higgins. “We have been a three-generation family business with the Chrysler Corporation since 1935. But we will stay in business, focusing on service and pre-owned cars.”

This is good news to the loyal customers of Belle Mead Garage. To many, it is a special place, characterized by friendly, knowledgeable service, honest dealings, and employees known for their unique love of automobiles.

Do you remember your first car? Like a first bike, it lingers in the mind, despite the passage of the years. Maybe it dates back far enough to have had a rumbleseat and running board, or perhaps it was that never-to-be-forgotten ’65 Mustang convertible, or maybe it was the special vintage model you worked hours and hours on, fine-tuning the engine, and polishing the finish until it shone.

Kip Higgins and his father Roy (Murph) Higgins understand how it is with people and their automobiles. And they have no trouble recalling the thrill of their own first cars.

For Murph, it was a 1951 red Plymouth convertible. “I loved that car,” he says, smiling. “It probably had more meaning for me than any other I’ve ever owned.”

Special Memories

Kip remembers the enjoyment and satisfaction of hours spent restoring his first vehicle to perfect working order. “My first car was really a truck, actually the shop vehicle. I was 16, and it was a ’64 Dodge pickup. I completely rebuilt it, and I made it shine!”

With such special memories intact, Murph and Kip Higgins take particular pride in the knowledge that their family business has remained strong, its continuity uninterrupted through the years.

There have been a lot of changes since Leroy Higgins opened Belle Mead Garage in 1927. The location at what was then Route 206 and Station Square in Belle Mead was surrounded by farmland, and Mr. Higgins first lived in the attic of the original building. No S.U.V.s, mini vans, PT Cruisers, or Jeeps were in evidence in those days, nor were seat belts and air bags. Toyota, Honda, and Lexus were not even a glimpse on the American horizon.

What has not changed in 82 years is the strong commitment to quality and service. Belle Mead Garage has built an outstanding reputation and is known for exceptional customer loyalty. As one long-time Princeton customer noted: “Their word is their bond, and a handshake is their guarantee of dealings that are honorable throughout. They are outstanding people.”

A long-time female customer comments on their courteous service to women. “They are really very nice to women. They treat you with equality and never take advantage if you don’t know something.”

“We are a real family operation,” explains Kip. “When my grandfather first started it, he had Pontiacs, both new and used. In the beginning, the business was just him and a mechanic. Later, his wife Florence worked at the garage, primarily in bookkeeping.”

War Production

Times were tough after the “Crash” in 1929 and the ensuing Depression, adds Murph Higgins. Leroy drove a school bus to supplement his income, and also pumped gas and sold ice cream at the front of the garage. “We pretty much focused on service in those days.”

In 1935, Leroy Higgins purchased a Chrysler-Plymouth franchise, and the first Chrysler cars were shipped to the freight train station located across the street from the garage. After the Depression, business improved, and sales were noticeably higher in 1939 to 1941, right before American entry into World War II. During the war, Chrysler went into war production, and no new cars were produced until 1946.

“We really patched up cars then because no one could get a new one,” says Murph. “There was gas rationing (three different levels depending on the use of the car), and the Esso gas we sold cost $.14 a gallon. The speed limit on 206 was 35 m.p.h., since everyone was trying to save gas.”

Murph began working at the garage on weekends, after school, and in the summers. “I changed a lot of tires,” he remembers.

After the years without new cars during the war, it seemed that everyone wanted one by 1946, but they were still in short supply. “A black market developed where cars were sold at higher prices than the industry rate,” notes Murph. But his father never engaged in that, and never charged more than the going price. A base model Plymouth cost about $750 in 1946, and a basic Chrysler $1200.

In the 1950s, the car market zoomed. Convertibles became very popular, as driving for pleasure increased. New vehicle models appeared, and technology brought new advances. Fully automatic transmission and power steering were introduced, and the garage began selling 250 cars or more a year. The staff grew to 10 employees.

More Volume

“In the ’50s and ’60s, there was more volume; more cars made and more cars sold,” says Murph. “They were good days.

“Chrysler had a lot of ‘firsts’,” he adds. “They were the first to have hydraulic brakes in the ’30s, and later in the ’80s, they introduced the minivan. Station wagons were very popular in the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s, and when the mini van took over, it really took a lot of wagons out of the market.”

So much of what drivers take for granted in cars today was not available in past times. Heaters were not standard until 1948-50, points out Murph. “In some cases, people had their own heaters, and we also installed heaters.”

And radios were not always a standard feature in cars then. Today, cars sport CDs and DVDs!

In fact, from the time of its opening, Belle Mead Garage has been a part of and witness to the history of the automobile industry. They saw the advent of power steering, power brakes, power windows, air conditioning (at first, air conditioning was only offered in high end cars), seat belts. catalytic converters, fuel injection, air bags, and minivans and S.U.V.s.

45 years ago, Belle Mead Garage mechanics replaced standard tires with snow tires in the winter. In the years before that, they attached chains to tires to enhance traction in snowy conditions. Today, all-weather tires are the norm, and 4-Wheel drive vehicles add stability in bad weather.

Big Cars

Front wheel drive has replaced rear wheel drive in many automobiles, and is also believed to perform better in snow.

The rise of the Suburban Utility Vehicle (S.U.V.) has been a phenomenon on the road. Although some people refer to them as “Socially Unacceptable Vehicles,” they were and continue to be sought after by many drivers. Not noticeably energy-efficient, they saw a drop in demand when gas prices were at their peak, but “as soon as the price of gas goes down, people still want big vehicles — mini vans and S.U.V.s,” points out Kip Higgins. “Americans got used to big cars.”

In addition to providing quality products and service, Belle Mead Garage has always been involved in the community — from the time Leroy Higgins served as the second fire chief in Belle Mead history, and the first fire engine was housed in the Belle Mead Garage.

When Murph Higgins became owner of the garage in 1959, a base Plymouth Valiant sold for $1800, and Belle Mead received the first of many Chrysler Quality Dealer (later 5-Star) awards, recognizing service, sales, customer service, training requirements, and facility. In fact, the garage has been the recipient of the 5-Star Award for Dealer Excellence 35 out of the past 37 years. Many of its technicians and service personnel have won awards from Chrysler as well.

As Christopher Higgins, Kip’s son, pointed out in an Independent Study college project, “Throughout the garage’s history, it has been extremely active in the communities of Montgomery and Hillsborough, sponsoring everything from Little League teams to intramural basketball, as well as local charities (such as the Rotary and the Elks), churches, school programs, and golf outings (with cars given to participants making a hole-in-one). The garage has sponsored the literacy program, Operation Outreach, for the past 10 years in Montgomery Township.”

Also, adds Kip: “We help out Boy Scouts, who are working on merit badges regarding cars. We’ll spend time showing them about service and repairs.”

Major Impact

Following in his father’s footsteps, Kip began working in the garage as a boy in 1970, initially pumping gas, washing cars, and then working on them. In the beginning of the ’70s, gas was $.35 a gallon — until 1975 when the OPEC embargo caused a major impact at the fuel pumps. By the end of the decade, Chrysler was in serious financial trouble due to a general recession in the country and its slowness to switch to 4-cylinder, front wheel drive models.

Lee Iacocca, then head of Chrysler, was responsible for getting a loan from the U.S. government (which was paid back in advance of the due date!), and business again had an upturn. Auto sales increased, cars got bigger — thanks in part to the popularity of the mini van and the Suburban Utility Vehicle (S.U.V.).

Kip Higgins started working full-time in 1982. He enjoyed the customers and also seeing all the new cars come in. He always knew he wanted to join the business, and when his father semi-retired in 1999, Kip took on the reins of the operation. Murph continues to be very much on the scene, sharing his knowledge and experience every day.

More changes came along in the ’80s and ’90s. Belle Mead acquired the Jeep-Eagle franchise — later the Eagle franchise would be phased out — and Plymouth was discontinued, rebranded as a Chrysler model. Belle Mead became a Chrysler-Jeep dealership, and more personnel were added to the business.

Chrysler merged with Daimler-Benz in 1998, and there was a substantial renovation to the garage in 2001. Also that year, sales were up, with 45 cars sold in the month of November, an all-time record at that point.

Antique Furniture

The renovation of the garage over time has resulted in expanded space, but it has not changed the nature of the facility, which is very special. A unique aspect of the garage is the informal and comfortable office/showroom, far removed from the typical sleek look of many car dealerships. It is still furnished with well-used antique furniture acquired by Murph Higgins and his father. It establishes a congenial atmosphere important to the Higgins team and inviting to their customers.

The increased sophistication of cars and advances in technology, however, has resulted in an automotive industry far different than that in evidence during the early days of the Belle Mead Garage operation. With today’s computer technology, extensive training has become an increasingly essential part of Belle Mead’s technicians’ professional lives, adds Kip Higgins “There is a lot of training involved in working on cars today. You need 120 hours a year to keep your certification.”

Technology and sophistication are no guarantees of success, though, and with the recent economic disaster in the country, the past year has been a nightmare for the American automotive industry. “Sales plunged last year, as the economy worsened,” notes Kip.

In its decision to eliminate one quarter of its dealerships, Chrysler intends to reduce the number of single-brand or 2-brand dealerships and retain those with all three Chrysler brands — Jeep, Chrysler, and Dodge, believes Kip.

Check List

“Now, we will focus on the future,” he states. “We will service a broader range of vehicles — not just those purchased here, and we’ll have an expanded number of used cars, including all types. All are certified, meaning they meet a check list of standards. We also drive all the used cars at least 30 miles and we offer a free loaner car for the convenience of the customer requiring service.”

In addition, there are currently 35 new Chrysler/Jeep vehicles available for sale, with many rebate combinations and competitive pricing.

For those considering a driving trip this summer, the garage can help with service and safety advice, adds Kip.

“Of course, it is important to have all regular maintenance done, including oil change, checking hoses and belts, spare tire, wipers, etc. An oil change every three months or 3000 miles is one of the best things you can do for your car. Also, for the best gas savings, drive between 55 and 65 m.p.h. Good gas mileage decreases at speeds over 75 m.p.h.”

As surely as one window closes, another opens, and if history is an example, Belle Mead Garage will rise to the occasion. There will be new challenges, but also new customers. The reputation of the Higgins’ men has stood the test of time, and no one doubts that it will continue to thrive.

When considering Belle Mead Garage, it is well to keep in mind the comment of the former Chrysler service representative, who wrote in an e-mail to Murph and Kip last week: “I just read a copy of ‘the list.’ I told my boss that you were the very best dealer of any franchise I ever met.”

And, Murph and Kip Higgins add: “We want to thank the community and all our customers for their loyalty and support. We have stayed small because we do every aspect of the business ourselves, and we want to carry on this tradition. Service is our specialty. We want to let everyone know we’re still here, and we’re here to stay.”

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