Tuesday, February 11, 2020

History of Automobile Dealerships in the Lawrence County Part 7


Ed Note: The following article is a continuation of the history of automobile dealerships in Lawrence County begun earlier on this blog.

4.       Middagh Motor Company was one of the eight auto dealers selling cars in 1924 in Lawrenceville.

A relatively new dealership, having begun about 1922, at 1815 South 12th Street by partners, John R. Johnson and J. J. Middah, the firm was called the Middagh-Johnson Auto Company. They sold Studebaker's. By 1924, Johnson had sold his interest and the firm had relocated on North Tenth Street. The Middagh Motor Company was then the dealer for the Overland and Willis Knight cars. The firm took its name for the proprietor and active manager, J. J. Middagh whose experience in automobiles was gained in Texas.    

Two years later in 1926, the Middagh Motor Company was under the management of Ralph R. Willis, who purchased a one-half interest in the company from his brother-in-law, J. J. Middagh.  Never being able to overcome his love for the Lone Star state, Mr. Middagh returned to Texas and the Middagh Motor company became the local dealer for Chrysler cars.

Ralph Willis’ true entrepreneur spirit can be seen in this company’s short history.  Before he purchased the Middagh Motor Company, he, along with others, started the Lawrence County Racing Association. With the American Legion sharing in the proceeds, the Association leased the one-half mile dirt track at Pinkstaff for a Labor Day Racing event in 1925.  A thirty-five mile race was the main feature with one of the race cars being built by the Middagh Motor company.

When Willis became manager of the Company, he initiated the “Turn Auto Service” program in which owners could bring their cars to be were oiled, greased and gone over on a monthly basis. This was a new concept in automobile service. At a time when the male- dominated world thought women couldn’t, or shouldn’t, drive a car, he made sure people knew his company sold cars to women.  He did this by publicizing in the social columns of the Daily Record whenever a woman purchased one of his cars.    “On July 3, 1926, The Middagh Motor Company delivered a Chrysler Model 80, four-passenger coupe to Mrs. C. E. Bramble.”

Willis was an innovator. Knowing that automobiles were prone to run out of gas, have flat tires, or need repairs on the road he bought the franchise for the United Auto Club. Because his company owned two “trouble trucks” (wreckers) he was prepared to provide continuous twenty-four hour seven-day a week service to automobile owner members.  These trouble trucks would bring gas, oil, tires, tubes, timers, start batteries, repair feed lines or provide a rope to tow in a crippled car. He was said to have had one of the best equipped repair shops in southern Illinois with mechanics who were trained to work on practically all makes of cars.  

Road service would be given free to Auto Club members as well as a ten percent discount on all tires, accessories, oils and labor.  A rebate of one cent per gallon of gasoline if purchased at Middagh Motor company would also be allowed. 

Was Willis too much of a threat to the other car dealers?  Did he just want to get out of the business? History does not record the answer to these questions, only that a year later in 1927, Willis had sold his company to the New Nash Motor Company.