In Frank McClure’s office, protected in a velvet-lined box, is Arizona auto license number 178. It was issued in 1914, the year that Monte Mansfield opened his Ford dealership in Tucson. McClure worked for Mansfield from 1954 to 1958, the year Mansfield sold his Ford dealership to Holmes Tuttle. When Monte Mansfield died, his widow gave the license to McClure, who is now the president at Holmes Tuttle Ford. It is in gestures such as this, as well as through memory and remembrance, that the history of the dealerships in Tucson is told.
While the idea of going to the dealer to buy a new car makes sense to us, things weren’t always done that way. The first cars were sold factory-direct, and the first independent car dealers got their start by buying cars from the factory and then reselling them alongside reliable products, like bicycles and horses. The first dealerships were even referred to as stables, until Percy Owen opened a site to display automobiles in New York City in 1899 and called it a showroom.
The distribution of automobiles was not particularly organized in those days. The manufacturer sold them to a distributor, who sold them to a dealer, who sold them to the customer. The distributors were mostly large urban dealers who sold to the smaller rural dealers. Factories continued to sell cars directly to the public at the same price for which the distributors purchased them.
But in the early part of the century the manufacturers began to formalize agreements with individual dealers, who would pay cash for cars, then wait for them to be built before they could be delivered and resold to the public.
By 1906, the City of Tucson Directory listed two auto dealers: the G. A. Wells Auto Co. at 208 W. Congress St., representing Winton, and the Huntsman-Sheldon Auto Co. on Scott Street, distributors for Oldsmobile.
By 1912, the number of Tucson auto dealerships and repair facilities swelled to nine, among them the F. Ronstadt Co. and F. J. Villaescusa–both of whom were also dealers of buggies, wagons, saddles and equine equipment. J. Breck Richardson owned a dealership at 231 E. Congress St. that would be sold two years later to Monte Mansfield.
“I have never known anyone else who had so much empathy for people and who was so good to his employees,” Frank McClure said of Monte Mansfield.
Indeed, Mansfield is credited for a lot more than selling cars. He lobbied Congress to bring Davis-Monthan Air Force Base to Tucson, got the Stone Avenue underpass built and helped convince Hughes Aircraft Co. to locate here, to cite a few of his accomplishments. Mansfield died the year after he sold his Ford dealership to Holmes Tuttle, who had begun his association with Ford in 1923 at their assembly plant in Oklahoma City.
When Tuttle came to Tucson, Frank McClure was the used car sales manager for Ford. The dealership, which had moved from Stone Avenue to Broadway Boulevard in 1947, had an open-air showroom that flooded during the monsoon season, sometimes badly enough that the cars were washed out of the showroom.