How Reed Brothers Started & Survived Almost a Century
It was 103 years ago, in October 1915, that Lewis Reed signed a franchise agreement with brothers Horace and John Dodge in Detroit. He was just 27 years old. Since then, the business grew and transformed into the oldest Dodge dealership in Maryland history and one of the oldest in the entire nation. In 1914, Lewis Reed became a partner in Rockville Garage, a business he purchased in 1918. His brother Edgar joined the business in 1919 upon his return from World War I, and the name became Reed Brothers Dodge.
A mechanical aptitude was necessary to be a dealer in the early 1900’s. When cars were shipped to the dealer from the manufacturer, they arrived partially assembled in railroad boxcars. It was the dealer’s responsibility to unpack and assemble the cars at the rail yard and drive them back to the dealership. Mechanics were often needed to repair the new cars if they broke down along the way. Lewis Reed was an expert auto mechanic. He received his automotive training at the Pierce-Arrow factory in Buffalo, New York, the Dodge Hamtramck and Hudson Motor Car factories in Detroit, Michigan and the Washington Auto College.
The Great Depression
In 1928, when Walter P. Chrysler took over after Horace and John Dodge died, Lewis Reed became an original member of the Chrysler family. By 1929, when the stock market crashed and Great Depression began, no one could afford to buy cars. Like most other businesses, the Great Depression hit hard and Reed Brothers had to rely on its Service Department to make ends meet. But, the dealership survived through these lean times.
This new car showroom above is filled with late 1920s Dodge Brothers new car models. The showroom faced the triangle at Veirs Mill Road and Rockville Pike (now known as Veterans Park) which gave the dealership maximum visibility to the largest volume of cross traffic. Behind the large plate glass windows and an awning above was the product — the new car.
There were no salesman’s desks in the showroom until after World War II. Lewis Reed allotted specific sales territory to his salesmen in four different directions from the dealership. The salesmen spent all day in the outlying areas of Poolesville, Rockville, Barnesville and Spencerville demonstrating cars to potential customers. At that time, Reed Brothers was selling about eight new cars a month and most sales resulted from knocking on people’s doors. It was direct person to person sales contact, relationship building and trust – all built and sealed on a handshake. Three of the four salesmen at the time were Francis O. Day, Raleigh S. Chinn and Benjamin J. Thompson.
United States Enters World War II
Reed Brothers faced another setback during World War II. All U.S. car manufacturers stopped production in order to concentrate on military equipment. Reed Brothers had no new cars to sell for three plus years. Many car dealers went bankrupt at this time. Lewis Reed converted his car showroom into a display room and sold GE washing machines and other large appliances to fill the gap. At this time, Reed Brothers had in their employ eight Veterans of World War II.
Ask anyone who has been in the car business for a while how they create lasting customer relationships. They’ll tell you it’s through conversation. In Lewis Reed’s day, a customer would come into the showroom and sit for hours and talk about local sports teams, the weather or family. But they’d never mention an automobile. Then, the customer would come back, maybe talk a second day. And on the third day, they’d get down to talking about a car. But it was all cautious, deliberate and very polite.
New car introduction was always one of the most exciting times at Reed Brothers. It was a once-a-year celebration that everyone looked forward to attending. For the salesman, it meant additional car sales. To the dealership, it was another method to reach out to hundreds of current and potential customers, not only for new car sales, but also to advertise the dealership’s other services. Many sales were made during new car introduction by those customers who had to be the first on their block to own one of the new models.
To attract drive-by motorists, large signs were placed in the showroom windows hyping the new year models: Dart, Lancer and Polara. Back in the day, there was tremendous brand loyalty. Customers who bought Dodges, usually bought them for life. In fact, many former customers traded every year and would buy a car on the spot. In the 1960s, new car introduction was a much more important part of the American automotive buying habit.
Reed Brothers Dodge successfully navigated through numerous Chrysler setbacks during the 1970’s and 80’s, including the first Chrysler Bailout, the sale of Chrysler to Daimler, and the sale to the private equity firm Cerberus. Reed Brothers met the challenges of gasoline shortages, high interest rates, severe inflation, and weakening consumer confidence which drove Chrysler into financial crisis. This survival is testimony that the dealership not only conquered setbacks, but often rebounded to reach new levels of success.
When you look back and consider what has taken place in the world in the past 100 years or so, you gain a perspective of what Lewis Reed faced. He overcame a lot of obstacles throughout his life. He steered his dealership through World War I, The Great Depression and World War II. When Reed Brothers had no new cars to sell for three and a half years and many dealers went bankrupt, he converted his car showroom into a display room and sold GE washing machines and other appliances.
Chrysler filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Chrysler terminated 789, or about 25% of its dealerships by June 9. The cuts resulted in an estimated 38,000 job losses. Whether a franchise was run by a second- or third-generation dealer, or is older than even Chrysler itself, didn’t seem to matter when Chrysler decided to cut dealerships ranks during their 2009 bankruptcy process. After almost 95 years selling Dodges, Reed Brothers was one of the 15 dealerships in Maryland and 789 dealerships nationwide notified by Chrysler that their franchise agreement would not be renewed.
During this time when many car dealers had to close their doors, Reed Brothers made behind-the-scenes tweaks to withstand the economic downturn and the loss of their franchise. The signs standing outside on Rockville Pike still said Reed Brothers Dodge, but inside, a new business was forming: Reed Brothers Automotive.
A business landmark in the Rockville area since 1915, Reed Brothers underwent a change in its structure – and its name – but still catered to the local community as it had for decades. Reed Brothers changed its name from Reed Brothers Dodge to Reed Brothers Automotive, and continued on as a used car dealer and repair shop until 2012.
Over 100 years later, the only name that remains familiar to Rockville car buyers is Lewis Reed. Reed Brothers Dodge was one of the longest running automobile dealers in Montgomery County Maryland, serving Rockville and the area for over 97 years. Along with St. Mary’s Church (1813), King Farm (1925), Red Brick Courthouse (1891), and the B&O Railroad Station (1873) — Reed Brothers Dodge (1915) — became a “Peerless Place” in 2015, the year marking its 100th Anniversary. Today, Bainbridge Shady Grove Metro Apartments pays homage to the oldest Dodge dealership in Maryland history with commemorative art on the former site of the iconic Reed Brothers dealership.
Bainbridge Shady Grove Metro lives up to its motto: “Great Stories Start Here.”