Looking back on... Downey Ford

DOWNEY - Today, while leading car companies slowly stagger out of bankruptcy and dubious automakers continue closing unprofitable dealerships from coast to coast, it might be hard to imagine a time when cars cycled out of dealerships almost as soon as they arrived, but in the 1960s and 70s, that was the reality, especially in Downey.From Sachs and Sons Lincoln-Mercury to Paramount Chevrolet, Downey could boast an elite class of auto dealerships that all enjoyed record car sales in the decades following World War II. Like many dealerships during that time, local businessmen owned and operated the majority of Downey's car dealerships, relying on sales from community members and commercial businesses. Downey Ford, located on the corner of Lakewood Boulevard and Gallatin Road, is a prime example of a family-owned car dealership that grew from obscurity to become a competitive 21st century dealership until its closure last year. Downey Ford's history begins with a man named James H. "Dutch" Kindelberger. Chairman of the Board of North American Aviation from 1948-1962, Kindelberger is credited as one of America's greatest pioneers in aviation and aerospace technology. Kindelberger's contributions, along with those of other pioneers, helped put the first man into space. In 1948, Ford Motor Company executive Ernest Breech, while visiting with Kindelberger, told him Ford's plan to release a new model car that would be a huge commercial success. "Too bad you're not in the car industry," said Breech. To which Kindelberger responded, "why not?" Soon after their meeting, Kindelberger invested in two small dealers, one in Downey named Burns Ford and another in downtown Long Beach. The 1949 Ford was released the following year with a sleek, fresh design that was indeed very successful with American consumers; however, Kindelberger continued to focus on aviation. While Kindelberger managed North American Aviation, his son-in-law, Ralph Graham, began developing an interest in Burns Ford. In 1951, Graham, a WWII veteran and mechanical engineer, began working at Burns Ford with Mel Burns in Downey. Two years later, Kindelberger decided to make a deal with Burns and Graham and Burns purchased Kindelberger's dealership in Long Beach, while Graham remained at the Downey dealership, which was located on Firestone Blvd. between Paramount Blvd. and Old River School Rd. Graham named his new dealership Graham Ford and operated it from this Firestone Blvd lot until 1956. That same year, Graham received a proposal from the owners of Sachs and Sons to relocate Graham Ford to Lakewood and Gallatin, adjacent to other dealerships to help draw more customers. Graham agreed to the plan and in 1956, after a persimmon grove was removed, the Ford dealership relocated to its current location where it has resided for more than half a century. Now closer to the Santa Ana Freeway, Graham Ford's business began to flourish along with its neighbors Sachs and Sons Lincoln-Mercury and Yeakel Plymouth-Chrysler. Looking to humble his successful son-in-law, Kindelberger in 1957 suggested that he change the name of the dealership to Downey Ford or Downey Auto Center. Obediently, the name Graham was dropped from the buildings and Downey Ford was added. "Downey Ford was a money machine in the 60s and 70s - that corner became the Cerritos Auto Square of the 1970s," said Jim Graham, son of Ralph Graham and grandson of Dutch Kindelberger. "That dealership was always profitable. We sold in total about 120,000 new and used cars and trucks while we were there." After graduating from college in the 70s, Jim Graham came back to Downey Ford to work with his father until his death in October 1986. In the early 80s, Downey Ford experienced one of its first major stumbling blocks as the economy began to sour and recession lingered. As local industrial plants in South Gate, Commerce and Pico Rivera began to close and workers were let go, Downey Ford began to lose revenue. "All these big employers closed," said Graham, president of Downey Ford until 1997. "Business got better but it did not return as much as it had been in the 70s and I realized that every time the economy cycled down it did not seem to come back as high as it had been." With this in mind, Jim Graham after attempting to move the dealership to a neighboring city, decided to build a new Ford facility in Rancho Santa Margarita and sell the Downey property to two partners, one of which was Bob Remy. "I couldn't own Downey Ford and this place [Rancho Santa Margarita Ford]," said Graham who is now president of Rancho Santa Margarita Ford. "But I wanted to move - I always saw Downey Ford as my dad's business, not mine." On Jan. 18, 2009, Downey Ford, while owned by Remy, closed and 63 employees were let go after Ford Motor Company shut down hundreds of its dealerships following its bankruptcy. Nevertheless, Jim Graham keeps his father's legacy alive as black and white photos of his father and Downey Ford line the walls of his Rancho Santa Margarita Ford dealership. "My dad was a great guy. He taught me a lot and I miss him a lot," said Graham. "He was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. The car business was expanding. He was trained as a mechanical engineer, but it turned out that he was a good businessman too." Although closed, Downey Ford will be remembered as one of several powerhouse car dealerships in the city that sold thousands of vehicles to the growing number of middle class families settling into an evolving suburban Los Angeles County.

********** Published: April 2, 2010 - Volume 8 - Issue 50