Thursday, January 16, 2014

Have you driven a Ford (on the beach) lately?

Just about every numbered highway in New Jersey has at least one: a car dealership. They're so commonplace that they'd almost be invisible, except for the giant flags and inflatable thingies dancing in the breeze created by passing traffic. It's hard to believe that there was a time when there were no dealers at all: no lots filled with rows and rows of cars, no salespeople asking what they needed to do to get you into "that" car today. Originally, most if not all auto manufacturers sold their products through catalogs and print advertisements.

Given its onetime status as America's Motor City, it's probably not surprising to discover that Detroit was the home of the first independent automobile showroom. However, the very first Ford dealership wasn't in Michigan, but in the resort town of Cape May, its founding the unintentional consequence of an auto race.

In the early days of the 20th century, manufacturers and hobbyists tested the latest and greatest cars on sand tracks and even on frozen lakes. The names of now-famous brands were participants, including Henry Ford and Louis Chevrolet, who drove their own races.

Cape May's beach was lauded as an ideal spot for auto racing, prompted by the formation of the city's own automobile enthusiasts club in 1903. Two years later, more that 10,000 people flocked to the resort city for a weekend beach carnival that included three days of motor racing. All of the big names were expected to be there, including Chevrolet (driving a Fiat), Ford, professional racer Walter Christie and a host of others.

According to the August 31, 1905 issue of The Motor World, Ford was delayed in reaching Cape May for the August 25 races, forcing him to drive his 60 horsepower car without benefit of making necessary tuneups. The auto magnate came in dead last in a field of four, with eyewitnesses later claiming that a sudden wave had overtaken his car, literally washing out his lead.

Reports of the time say nothing of it, but legend has it that Ford was counting on winning the race so he could use the prize money to pay for his accommodations at the Stockton Inn. Lacking those funds, he offered the hotel manager stock in Ford Motor Company, which had gone public only a year earlier. No dice. Maybe the manager was skeptical about Ford's viability, or maybe he was simply risk averse, but he wanted cash.

Dan Focer, sitting in the Model F he bought
directly from Henry Ford.
Ford then looked to the unquestionably valuable assets he had with him. Besides his race car, he'd brought a Model F sedan, which he offered to local resident Dan Focer for $400. To sweeten the deal, he promised to make Focer the first dealer of Ford vehicles. An engineer on the West Jersey Railroad, Focer agreed to the transaction and started selling cars in Cape May three years later, around the same time Ford began using the production line to manufacture cars. He later took on J.E. Mecray as a partner in the dealership.

As for Ford, he left Cape May with his accounts settled. A few years later, he and a partner purchased land in the city, with the vision of building transatlantic shipping facilities to import cars to Europe. However, nothing became of the plan.

Focer and Mecray reportedly went out of business in 1937, though the WPA Guide to 1930s New Jersey claims that the "First Ford Agency" on Washington Avenue was still displaying the car in 1938. Regardless, the vehicle hasn't been seen publicly in quite some time. It was last known to be with a now-defunct Ford dealership in Chester, PA.

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