95 Memorable Years of Belle Mead Garage History Is Celebrated by Longtime Auto/Tractor Company
BEST TRACTORS: This 4610 M 4×4 Hi Crop model, suitable for tillage and planting, is one of many tractors available at Belle Mead Garage. Also known for pre-owned automobiles, rentals, and car service, the company expanded into tractors several years ago. “We are always ready to help customers with advice about the best tractor for their needs and purposes,” point out owners Kip Higgins and Chris Carnevale.
By Jean Stratton
That familiar adage “When one window closes, another opens” has certainly proved true at Belle Mead Garage. The longtime and highly respected automobile dealership is celebrating its 95th anniversary, and with a new and very successful component to its business — tractors!
Some businesses and organizations — like people — stand the test of time. Some don’t. In recent times, it seems that the business and commercial landscape changes almost in the blink of an eye.
It is all the more remarkable when a business continues to grow and evolve, despite setbacks and new challenges. Such an enterprise is the aforementioned Belle Mead Garage, located at Route 206 and Station Square in Belle Mead. It has been at that location since 1927, when Leroy Higgins opened it as a service station and car dealership, and lived in the attic of the original building.
Three generations of the Higgins family have seen to it that their reputation has remained intact through all the ups and downs of the automobile industry. Paramount is their love of the business, and a willingness to address unforeseen issues that come along.
“This has been a real family operation,” explains current co-owner Kip Higgins, now associated with co-owner Chris Carnevale. “My late father, Roy, took it over in 1959, and I came on full-time in 1982. We both grew up in the business.”
Following in his father’s footsteps, he began working in the garage, pumping gas, washing cars, and then working on them. Being a part of Belle Mead Garage is all he ever wanted to do, he says.
Originally a service station and new car distributorship, the garage became a Chrysler dealership in 1935. It has had a long history of outstanding service and exceptional customer loyalty. As one longtime client has said, “The folks at Belle Mead Garage are outstanding people. Their word is their bond, and a handshake is their guarantee of dealings that are honorable through and through.”
A Chrysler dealership for 74 years, Belle Mead Garage was one of nearly 800 dealers across the country to lose their franchise in 2009 during the severe economic downturn of that time.
“It was a blow, of course, says Kip Higgins. “We had been a three-generation family business with the Chrysler Corporation, but we certainly planned to stay in business, and we made the change to focus on service and selling pre-owned cars.”
The company continued to be successful and serve as an important automotive resource for its many longtime customers as well as new ones.
And then, in 2019, it turned another corner. It added Massey Ferguson tractors to its inventory of vehicles, and this has been a big success.
“Initially, our forecast was to sell 25 tractors the first year, and we actually sold 87,” says Carnevale, who brought the idea of the tractors to Higgins.
Carnevale, a longtime friend of the Higgins family, had originally worked at the Garage when he was in high school. He later moved to Wisconsin, where he became general manager of a Massey Ferguson tractor dealership. Massy Ferguson is known for high quality tractors and farm machinery.
Returning to New Jersey and knowing the long and respected history and reputation of Belle Mead Garage, he thought the tractors would be a good fit. He was exactly right!
“Massey Ferguson wanted to open in the east, and this was a good opportunity,” he explains. “We are the only Massey Ferguson dealership in New Jersey.
“More tractors are sold in the state today than was the case 50 years ago. Then, there were many more larger farms, and they would have two or three tractors. Today, there are fewer big farms, but many more smaller farms, and so more tractors are needed.”
“There are not as many professional farmers now, but there are hobby farmers, who do it for their enjoyment,” continues Carnevale. “Some have cows, vineyards, produce, etc.
“Then, there are boutique farmers, who earn their living farming, and custom-grow their crops. For example, they might custom-grow certain vegetables for chefs. And they also need tractors.”
In addition, he notes, a number of individuals with large properties like to have tractors for assorted purposes, such as clearing the land, cutting the grass, plowing, or as snow blowers.
“Also, a lot of nurseries and vineyards in the area are our customers since they need tractors,” he says. “And many people in the area have horses, and they’ll need tractors for baling hay and other projects.”
The majority of tractors at Belle Mead Garage are Massy Ferguson, but SCAG commercial models and two-wheel BCS tractors for spreading, chipping, log splitting, and de-thatching have also been added to the inventory.
Indeed, there is a tractor at Belle Mead for just about any need, including plowing, tilling the soil, and digging holes. There are back hoes, front loaders, standing lawnmowers — and they are all very versatile. They can be utilized for landscaping or reshaping driveways and more. Different attachments and implements can be added as needed. In addition, various tractor-related accessories and supplies are available at the garage.
The tractors have proved so popular that the business has extended beyond Mercer, Somerset, and Hunterdon counties, and expanded statewide, as well as into New York, Pennsylvania, and New England, reports Carnevale.
“It has definitely exceeded our expectations,” he says. “A lot of people find us on the internet now, and also, sometimes customers will come in for service or to buy a car, and they may not know we have tractors. Then they may become interested in getting a tractor. Or it can be the other way. They’ll come in for a tractor, and maybe see a car they like, or then bring in their own car for service. A while back, one customer came in to trade a motorcycle for a tractor.
“We also service tractors, including repair and maintenance. It’s good for a tractor to be checked once a year. We will pick up and deliver, and in some cases, we make house calls if the tractor is very large.”
Tractors cover a wide range in price, anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000. Often those in the $25,000 range are most in demand at Belle Mead.
Noting how life not only takes interesting turns, but sometimes comes full circle, Carnevale points out that Kip Higgins’ grandfather, Leroy Higgins, worked for VanZandt Tractors in the 1920s before he opened Belle Mead Garage.
Carnevale is also proud that Belle Mead has won awards three years in a row (2019, 2020, 2021) from the Massey Ferguson Dealership Excellence Program.
Dedication to Excellence
The company’s dedication to excellence is now focusing on tractors, just as it had on automobiles as a Chrysler dealership, when it won the 5-Star Service Award from Chrysler for more than 30 years.
Of course, customers can still count on Belle Mead for its large selection of pre-owned cars. As Higgins notes, “Service is our specialty. We have stayed small so that we can do everything ourselves, and all our vehicles are tested. We tend to have cars with higher mileage, and they are popular. We also have some with lower mileage, and customers like to have the latest technology. The more high-tech, the better!
“We also service all cars, whether they have been purchased at Belle Mead or not. We have different generation customers from the same family who appreciate our personal attention, which includes free loaner cars, when needed.
“We are also proud of our staff, which includes many who have been with us a long time. Now we also have mechanics who work on the tractors.”
A unique aspect of Belle Mead, also much appreciated by customers, is the informal and comfortable office/showroom. Far removed from the typical sleek look of many car dealerships today, it is still furnished with well-used antique furniture acquired by Roy Higgins and his father. It establishes a very down-to-earth congenial atmosphere.
Kip Higgins is proud to continue and reinforce the company’s splendid reputation, established by his father and grandfather, and he is enthusiastic about the addition of tractors to the business.
“When we sell someone their first tractor, and see their reaction, and they are so excited, it’s like Christmas! It’s a great feeling,” he says. “Also, every day is different. There is always something to look forward to and something new to learn. It is an honor to carry on the tradition of our company and to continue what my grandfather and father started. And now, to add a new dimension with the addition of the tractors, it’s a whole new business opportunity and a new adventure.”
Belle Mead Garage is open Monday through Friday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. (908) 359-8131. Website: bellemeadgarage.com.