Jeff Goldstein loves cars. They have intrigued him as long as he can remember.
Jeff also loves research, the pursuit of information. And even better, he loves the hunt.
His latest quest puts him on a mission like no other. It is part collecting, but to a larger extent it is documenting the history of Rhode Island automobile dealerships. He’s found that at least since the 1920s there have been about 160 Rhode Island automotive dealers. At about that time dealers began “branding” their cars with emblems usually affixed to the back of cars.
Having found what he believes are the names and addresses of most of the state’s dealers in the last 95 years, which he accomplished by going through telephone directories at the Rhode Island Historical Society, he’s taken to collecting the emblems.
He’s got a long way to go, but already he’s realized that in some cases these badges are “the only tangible evidence of these dealers.”
Of the 160 dealers, he has found nearly 75 emblems. He has visited many sites of former dealers, poked through junkyards, followed up on leads - a lot of them dead ends - and, naturally in this day, turned to the Internet. He’s even running a classified ad in this paper, which brought his eccentric effort to our attention.
What Goldstein found was the evolution of dealer emblems from a brass tag that was two to three inches long that were affixed with screws or rivets in the 1920s and ’30s to the die cut with chrome plated emblem. They kept evolving, and as his collection illustrates, the emblems were more than simply the dealer’s name. They were stylized to accentuate the name and give the dealership, and usually the city where located, “flair.” In a few cases, such as Norwood Motors, the dealer identified with the village rather than the municipality.
That local connection, Goldstein has found, was how dealers worked and accounts for why there were so many dealerships.
“Every small town had a dealership,” says Goldstein.
He said it wasn’t unusual for people to comparative shop by visiting one dealer after the other. “It was much more a matter of salesmanship than it is today.”
Even into the 1950s some dealerships operated from service and auto mechanics shops.
“They would have one car that would be on display,” said Goldstein. When that vehicle was sold they would get another.
One of the early Rhode Island automobile shopping strips - the forerunner to the Route 2 of the 1980s and ’90s - was Elmwood Avenue in Warwick and Cranston. As the dealers evolved and manufacturers produced multiple models, the car companies developed programs aimed at marketing their cars. The car companies dictated how showrooms were to look down to the color schemes and how cars are to be displayed.
The badge became the distinguishing local connection. It wasn’t always admired.
“People didn’t want holes punched in their cars and some didn’t want to advertise for the dealership,” says Goldstein.
Perhaps because of this, as much as the cost, emblems evolved to plastic that were affixed by two-sided adhesive tape and today’s stickers.
Goldstein has also found that when a dealership changed hands, there was a compulsion to change names that seems so counter to maintaining the good will and name of the former owner. As a consequence, the new owners cleared the business of everything with the former dealership’s name including that box of emblems waiting to go on to the next car sold. The result, of course, is that while an establishment may have a long history as a dealership, it has had several names and that many more emblems for Goldstein to track down.
Finding emblems from some of the more recently operating dealerships have proven challenging, such as Norwood Motors and Fiore Pontiac.
Goldstein tracked down Walter Richardson Jr., the son of the late Ward 2 councilman, who ran Norwood Motors. Richardson remembered working at the dealership. He was the “lot boy” often given the responsibility of affixing the emblem. But Richardson had no idea where Goldstein could find a Norwood Motors for his collection.
Goldstein was stumped until he visited a junkyard in Cumberland several weeks ago. He poked around and came up empty-handed. But a man at the yard questioned what he was looking for and suggested he visit Ted’s in Central Falls; “he’s got a wall full of ’em,” Goldstein remembers.
It was like he hit the mother lode.
“I was flabbergasted,” he said of the find.
Ted’s was, indeed, filled with emblems. Goldstein nearly doubled his collection of Rhode Island dealers, bringing the collection up to 75 including Norwood Motors.
Goldstein is unsure what he’ll do with his collection. He’s thinking people would enjoy a “trip down memory lane” if they were displayed at a library or, perhaps, a dealership.
Meanwhile, the chase goes on…and he’s loving it.
Maybe tomorrow he’ll find Fiore Pontiac or it could be another dealership that’s faded from the state. There’s no lack of emblems to be found including…Caldwell Ford, Carlson Chevrolet, Folgo Ford, Gil Chevrolet, Williams Corner Dodge, Lamb Motors, Valley Buick and Harry Sandager Ford just to name a few.