BELLEVILLE — Representatives from the Chrysler Corp. are set to present an award to the Oliver C. Joseph dealership that the automaker has never bestowed before.
This month marks the centennial anniversary of the Belleville-based business -- one that is the longest remaining family founded and family operated Dodge dealership in the nation.
Although the story of how Oliver Charles Joseph got that franchise is lost, the Joseph family can trace back its business to June 1, 1914. That was one month before Horace and John Dodge began their retail business and when Joseph opened his dealership on West Main Street in Belleville. It remained there for the next 92 years before relocating to Illinois 15 in August 2006.
Joseph personally knew the Dodge brothers as well a Walter Chrysler, whose Chrysler Corp. would purchase the Dodges' business in 1927.
Joseph's son, Oliver Dee Joseph, succeeded his father in 1958 -- the day Oliver Dee's son, Brad Joseph, was born.
Oliver Dee enjoyed racing sports cars and co-founded the Southern Illinois Region of the Sports Car Club of America. Back then, dealerships did not have to have a franchise to sell foreign cars and he built an adjoining showroom, where he sold Jaguar, MG, Triumph, Porsche, Mercedes and BMW.
Brad Joseph started working full-time at the dealership in August 1981. He took over the business following the death of his brother, Oliver "Curt" Joseph, in April 1998. Oliver Dee died in December 2009.
Looking back on his time in the family business and the past century in car sales, Brad Joseph is proud that his family's dealership has retained the same service under the same ownership in the same town for 100 years.
"It astounds me everyday that with the complexity of this business we're able to survive," Joseph said. "And not only survive, but thrive."
The dealership survived the auto industry crisis from 2008-10 that impacted automakers and forced some dealerships to close as the industry was weakened by a substantial increase in the price of gas. Sales began to drop with the lack of fuel-efficient models to offer to consumers and the prices of raw materials rose.
But the biggest change, Joseph said, is the technology that customers and the dealerships can access. Computers are a part of every car made today.
"We can't order cars without computers," he said. "We can't fix cars without computers. The average car has at least five computers in it."
Joseph has also noticed that there are fewer competitors than before. In 2009, he purchased the Wagner Motor Car Co., a Buick and GMC dealership that relocated and opened a lot and showroom across the highway from Joseph's lot in April 2007.
"There's probably about two-thirds of the dealerships in the country than there used to be," he said. "At one point, I know the count was 28,000. Now, I know it's less than 20,000 or right at 20,000. There's less than half of the number of Chrysler dealerships that there used to be."
But aside from that, not much has changed in the day-to-day business.
"You're still investing a huge amount of money in a piece of equipment you're going to own for many years and you want to make sure you're getting the best deal, on both sides of the fence, the dealership and the customers," he said.
"And you want to be sure you buy it from someone who can fix it if it breaks, who can help you if you have a problem. So that hasn't changed at all."
Vintage car collection
Joseph said he is not a car collector, but has a small collection of older cars inside his showroom. The oldest is a maroon 1935 Chrysler Air Flow, the first streamlined model to be built in large production. Although a commercial failure, the car's art deco design -- designed in the same vintage and period as the Chrysler Building in New York -- was one of the few long-wheel-based versions built. Joseph said that according to Chrysler, only 11 exist.
The showroom also has a 1936 Dodge pickup restored by local mechanic Charlie Beil. Joseph acquired the truck from a museum in Arkansas in a trade for a 1998 Dodge Dakota.
"When Chrysler opened a museum in Detroit, they wanted to buy that truck from me," he said. "They felt it was the best example of that vintage truck. But they didn't offer me enough money for it. Now it's still here, and the museum has closed. So they missed their chance."
Joseph has a 1960 MGA, similar the cars his father liked to race. The car's aluminum body and front wheel disk breaks were advanced for its time. He also has a white 1974 Triumph TR6, which was his brother's favorite car.
Inside his Buick and GMC showroom across the street is a dark green 1919 Model H Buick Touring Car that is on loan from a friend of Joseph's who wishes to remain anonymous. The antique car was originally purchased in 1919 by Prosper Christoph, who bought it from Gustav "Gus" Wagner, the founder of the Wagner dealership, in 1919. In 1955, the car was sold to Verlan Heberer and was restored 20 years ago. Gus Wagner provided free lube and oil changes as part of the original sale.
And then, of course, there is the vintage-1927 Pullman railroad car. Joseph, like his father, is a model railroad buff. He said he traveled with his dad to Western Pennsylvania to look at the car in 1972 and later bought it. The railroad car sat outside the dealership on West Main Street and was then relocated to the new dealership, but moved indoors, where it remains and serves as a meeting place and an area for parties and celebrations.
Joseph said one of the reasons for his business' longevity is its involvement in the community. The dealership has donated a lot of time and money for about 100 local causes over the years. He also believes attention to detail and quality employees are what has driven the business for the past century.
"There aren't many dealerships where the dealer is there everyday," he said. "The average dealer, the large guy, owns five, six, 10, 50 of them nowadays. I'm not the one who's involved in most of the detail work, but my employees, in particular, pay very close attention to detail. We work very hard every single day to pay attention to every single detail.
"Do we get it right all the time? Nowhere close. But we get it right more times than any other dealer that has been able to hang a Dodge sign out front. That's the answer. You have to have great employees."
Among the many certificates and photographs that line the walls inside the showroom are three plaques presented to the dealership over the years: the 25th anniversary plaque from Dodge presented in 1939, the 50th anniversary plaque presented by Dodge in 1964, and the 75th anniversary plaque presented by Dodge in 1989. Now comes a fourth one and the one no one else has, the only one that has remained in the same family for 100 years.
"That's us," Joseph said. "Same entity. Same name. Same corporate structure."
Contact reporter Will Buss at email@example.com or 239-2526.
Want to go?
The public is invited to the Belleville dealership this weekend to celebrate its 100th anniversary with a car show preview from 6-9 p.m. Friday and a car show from noon to 4 p.m. Saturday, when about 300 cars will be displayed, weather permitting.