Jan Martin has strong feelings concerning car shopping.
“I hate buying cars! I absolutely hate it worse than anything! It might be that I know too much,” the Colorado Springs native and current City Councilor said.
Martin knows a lot. Her breadth of automotive knowledge was formed by her family’s six-decade involvement in the industry — all of it in Colorado Springs. In the 1920s, Harry MacDonald, Jan’s grandfather, would purchase a business that began as a bicycle repair shop on North Nevada Avenue.
During the company’s infancy, her father, Guy Martin, would make his mark as a sales manager. But he had a larger vision, and that vision would one day earn him the unofficial title of “Mayor of Motor City.”
Due to his failing health, Charles G. Strang moved to Colorado from New York in 1888. He took to sheep ranching near Hugo and shortly after, his brother Hubert joined him. In 1897, the Strangs left ranching and moved to Colorado Springs. Charles purchased the McCandlish Cigar and Candy Store at 27 N. Tejon St., the location that would become C.G. & H. Strang, a sporting goods shop.
According to an article published Jan. 20, 1962, in the Colorado Springs Gazette-Telegraph, the Strangs repaired golf clubs “for millionaires from the golf fields,” while also developing a reputation for top-notch bicycle service. The Strangs would move their mechanical operations a block east to Nevada Avenue and their sporting goods business model evolved into one of the region’s earliest auto repair shops.
But C.G. Strang’s health continued to decline, and he sold his business to Charles B. Lansing before dying in 1922. It was that year the area’s first Buick franchise was born. Five years later, Harry D. MacDonald bought the controlling share of the dealership, which would exist at its downtown location, alongside the rest of the city’s auto dealers, for more than 30 years.
‘Out of necessity’
When MacDonald died in 1959, his son-in-law Guy Martin, who had worked in auto sales for his father-in-law for 20 years, took over the business. Considering MacDonald had no sons of his own, Martin was the logical heir to his Buick franchise, which still bore the Strang name. Guy Martin moved up to vice president, then general manager and eventually owner of the franchise upon MacDonald’s passing.
According to Harry Martin, Guy’s oldest son (also Jan’s brother) and an employee of the dealership, it was during that time when leasing costs would price the Martins right out of the area.
“We were located downtown where the bus depot is now,” Harry said. “That building was owned by the [Myron] Stratton estate, and the lease on that building was paid through a percentage of our gross sales.”
As car prices increased, Harry said, so did the cost of the lease.
“My father decided we had to get out of here,” Harry said. “He worked out an arrangement to be the first people to move to Motor City.
“We were there two and a half years before anyone else came,” he added. “My dad thought maybe it was a bad decision.”
Jan has similar memories.
“I don’t remember my dad being this great, forward-thinking businessman,” she said. “The truth is, they didn’t have a choice. It got to the point where my dad couldn’t make ends meet and that was the driving force behind them moving.”
In 1962, developer B.H. Smartt invested $5 million in 40 acres on the city’s southwest side.
Guy Martin Buick opened Sept. 24, 1962, at 1313 Fountain Creek Blvd., as the street was then named. The opening was “in time for the unveiling of the 1963 model Buicks,” according to an article published in the Gazette-Telegraph.
The 16,400-square-foot floor space and 100,000-square-foot lot were the first developments constructed along the city’s south stretch of Interstate 25, known then as the Monument Valley Freeway.
“It was a real risk as whether others would come down to join him,” Jan said. “I remember my dad really fretting the first couple years on whether it was the smartest thing he’d ever done or the dumbest thing he’d ever done.”
It was Oct. 18, 1964. Headlines on the front page of the Gazette-Telegraph announced “Soviets Follow Nikita’s Policies Despite Ouster” and “Johnson Plans National TV Report on Reds.”
Then there was the automotive tabloid inserted into that paper, with stories including, “Chrysler Turbine Car Uses Kerosene” and “Nearly Nine Million Own Two or More Cars!”
One prominent ad stated “Ford Mustang — it looks like a $5,000 sport import — but lists for thousands less.”
It was the tabloid’s front-page footer, though, that may have allowed Guy Martin to rest easy.
“Motor City Development Continues to Expand” appeared below an aerial photo of expansive land southwest of Fountain Creek. As Colorado Springs approached 1965, the vision was becoming a reality.
An article within the special section reported “two buildings done, one almost and two under construction” and that Smartt’s project “shows signs of reaching the predicted investment.”
Perkins Motor Co., only the third dealership to build in the motor park, moved from its former location at 115 N. Cascade Ave. The new dealership boasted a children’s room with TVs “to entertain the youngsters while the parents wait for vehicles to be serviced.”
“‘The main purpose of our move,’ says Will Perkins, ‘is to lower operating costs. This savings can then be passed along to the customer in the form of reduced sale prices of new cars and the costs of service and maintenance work,’” the 50-year-old article states.
Additionally, ground had been broken for Silver State Cadillac Inc., an 82,000-square-foot dealership with W.A. Wills Jr. acting as president.
The Cadillac showroom was “designed with an integrated rock garden and landscaping to show new cars to best advantage,” Wills said in the article. “Several of the offices will be furnished with contemporary furniture, wall-to-wall carpeting and indirect lighting” and would be completed by March 1, 1965, the article reported.
The second dealership to open in Motor City, Dummer Auto and Marine, was spending $55,000 in 1964 to expand and was “adding a line of coaches to its Tropicana line.”
Phil Long Inc. also opened in Motor City in 1965.
“Located on the south side of Fountain Creek Boulevard a short distance west of Guy Martin Buick, [the] first automotive firm to move into the area. The Phil Long building will have a display area on the north and a service entrance on the east side,” a Gazette-Telegraph article read. “‘The display area,’ Long said, ‘will have ample room to display eight automobiles at the same time.’”
Daniels Motors purchased 10 acres within Motor City in 1965, but would not yet move because it had just invested $50,000 on its Weber Street plant.
Gradually, dozens of new- and used-car dealerships, service garages, car washes and repair shops began to migrate to the southwest side of Colorado Springs.
‘Absolutely … thrilled’
According to city statistics, the automotive sales sector generated just over $15 million in city sales tax revenues in 2013, the most recent year with data compiled over 12 months. That figure does not include revenues generated through auto repairs and leases. In April 2014, the most recent sales tax data available for a single month, indicated services and leases came to more than $645,000. While not all of those transactions take place in Motor City, many do.
“He would absolutely be thrilled,” Jan said of how her father’s move impacted the industry. “There were some lean years, some difficult times. When business was down, the dealer was paying for all those cars sitting on the lot. We’d sit around the dinner table and I’d complain about all the GIs in town, as a young woman. He would tell us to never complain because they kept our business going. We see that today. There’s and uptick [in sales] as the soldiers are coming back [from deployment].”
Both Jan and Harry Martin said they remember times when the whole family pulled together to keep things running.
“There were stormwater problems, even then,” Jan said. “We’d just moved to a new property and this was the first building. Every time it rained, it was all hands on deck. I didn’t even have a driver’s license and we’d have to rush down [to the dealership] and drive all the cars up the hill.”
Harry said he “remembers water making its way up to the bottom of the car doors. It was like they were sitting in a bowl.”
Jan recalls noticing significant changes in 1972, upon her return to Colorado Springs from college. She said, following graduation, she considered going into the family business.
“It was a different time then,” she said. “I [told my father] I’d like to get in on [the family business]. He sat back in his chair chuckling and said, ‘What in the world could you do? We already have a secretary.’”
Intentions to preserve the family business met with tragedy in 1986.
Guy Martin sold his dealership in the late 1980s to James Reilly after Martin’s younger son, Charles, died of a brain tumor in 1986. The Reilly family, including James’ grandfather, had worked with the MacDonald and Martin families for generations. Reilly would eventually sell the business to make way for what is Mike Shaw Buick today. Other than some renovations, Jan said, the building looks very familiar.
Feeling nostalgic, she said one reason she hates car shopping today is because the experience has changed.
“Car dealerships in the old days were family-owned and had personal relationships in the community,” she said, adding that, for much of her young life, she was able to avoid dealerships because there was always a ride around when she needed one.
“As a family [in the car business], we always had cars. … I never bought a car myself until the mid-’90s,” she said. “I’m embarrassed to say, it was not a Buick. My father probably turned over in his grave that day. I believe I bought a Toyota.”