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So it’s 1920 and you need a new car

It’s early October 1920 and your old car is wheezing toward terminal mechanical failure, but fortunately, your rich aunt just died and left you enough money to upgrade from your worn-out, old wheezer to something — anything — new.

You intend buying your new car right here in Fulton County so there’s a dealer nearby if something goes wrong, but where do you start looking? The easiest answer is to consult your Tuesday, Oct. 5 Morning Herald’s advertising section that includes a handy Fulton County Automobile Dealer’s Directory, paid for by the Fulton County Automobile Dealers Association. Hopefully your rich aunt left you enough money to pick and choose.

Starting alphabetically, Fred Snyder over in Johnstown sells the Briscoe at 10 S. Market St. What do we know about the Briscoe, since there’s no annual Consumer Reports Car issue in 1920? Auto historians tell us it was a good car. Benjamin Briscoe named it after himself, as many early auto manufacturers did, and it wasn’t hard to spot a Briscoe: It was the only car on the road featuring just one large headlight, located smack in the center of the front. The big single headlight earned it the name “cyclops” for obvious reasons. Originally, the organizer of Buick, Briscoe sold his Buick shares to finance his own car, but you might decide not to buy a Briscoe from Fred Snyder if you knew Ben Briscoe was about to leave the company. He did, and soon after, it ended production. Briscoe was one of the more successful early automakers, dying in 1945 on his 3,000-acre Florida estate. Apparently, he knew when to quit.

Next, you might have visited the Morris Garage on Gloversville’s Forest Street. Mr. Morris sold Chandlers, Clevelands, and Dorts. Dorts? Yes, really. In 1920, Frederick Chandler’s firm manufactured six mid-priced Chandlers ranging from $2,000 to $3,500. Chandler introduced the first fully-synchronized transmission in 1926, but over-expansion killed the company in 1929. Morris apparently sold many Clevelands too, as local newspaper articles frequently mention them. Clevelands were just a smaller, cheaper version of the Chandler. The “Deluxe Touring” Cleveland cost only $1,145, complete with ‘extras’ like a rearview mirror and driver’s side windshield wiper, at no extra cost. Wow! And then there was the Dort. In 1920, J. Dallas Dort’s Dorts, priced from $695 to $1,085, were snappy-looking, fast, popular, and the number one choice of college men, so no wonder Dort was America’s 13th largest automobile producer that year. If you were young and ‘sporty’ and your aunt’s money would cover it, a speedy Dort could have been yours.

One of the smartest local 1920 dealers was E.C. Lair of 27-29 Bleecker St. Mr. Lair was smart because he sold both Chevrolets and Cadillacs: He had a high-volume, low-priced car in the Chevrolet and a high-profit expensive car in the Cadillac.

Finally, there was still the Model T Ford, a mechanical antique even before 1920. If there was ever a reason for Chevrolet to succeed, it was Henry Ford’s stubborn refusal to update his ‘tin Lizzie’. Fords were available at both Gloversville and Johnstown salesrooms, sold by the Maylender & Hughes Agency, and with a new Model T priced at only $345, half the cars registered in America in 1920 were T’s. But let’s hope your aunt left you enough money to make a better choice.

Other Fulton County dealers sold the Elcar, Franklin, Packard, Nash, National, Lexington, Studebaker, Oakland, Oldsmobile, Peerless, Reo, Standard Eight, Paige and Velie. While virtually anything on wheels sold well before the 1929 stock market crash, many of the above-mentioned autos quickly succumbed, as did some of their owners: Elcar’s company president, for example, was shot dead in 1929 by a disgruntled stockholder. Among the above-named autos, only Ford, Packard, Studebaker, Oldsmobile and Nash survived the depression. Buick hadn’t any Fulton County dealership, but there was a Buick agency in nearby Amsterdam.

While very few people who needed a new car in 1920 had an inheritance from a deceased aunt, the alternative to buying a car outright was to finance one, but automobile financing was still in its infancy. Local banks hesitated financing anything with wheels, because things with wheels could leave and not return, plus there was no law requiring owners to carry car insurance, and banks couldn’t legally compel them to. Most banks therefore only made auto loans to local people known to be good credit risks. With no rich aunt around, you’d have been smartest to buy one of Mr. Lair’s Chevrolets, because General Motors just opened the General Motors Acceptance Corporation in 1919. Even these early GMAC loans weren’t very consumer friendly — they required the buyer to put 35 percent down, and the balance, made through monthly loan payments, had to be paid off in one year, or GMAC repossessed your car and kept your money.

These were tough terms, but better than Ford’s. Facing this annoying GMAC competition, Henry reluctantly established his ‘Ford Weekly Payment Plan’ an even tougher installment loan requiring 50 percent down and weekly payments to your dealer of at least $10, and you couldn’t even take your new car home until the loan was paid. Of course it didn’t really matter to your dealer how long you took to pay off your loan since the Model T never changed, there wasn’t any such thing as last year’s obsolete model.

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