Manchester has always loved its cars whether Cruisin' on Main or driving to work. When Douglas Dumas, who turned 90
years old this year, was starting out in the used car business, it was hard to get cars at all new or used right at a
time when Manchester residents desperately needed transportation.
During World War II, Connecticut was an industrial center, building machinery for the war. The big employers needed workers around the clock, working three shifts a day.
During the war years, Doug said, "You couldn't keep a car on the lot. You put a car out, and, boom, somebody bought it." Auto dealers paid a premium, over the book value of the car, just to get cars to sell.
In 1941, Doug Dumas was working at Pratt & Whitney Aircraft in East Hartford, locally known as the "Aircraft." He
started out as a machine operator there. He and his wife, Carol, had moved from Rhode Island and were living in Manchester.
Doug says, "My father-in-law, Addi Barnes, was an automobile dealer in Rhode Island, and he said to me, 'All these guys are going into the service why don't you try to buy some of their cars?' So I did. I established a contact with a guy who had a used car lot, and with the money I had saved about $7,500 from working in the Aircraft, I backed him in the car business. His name was Krol, and he must be dead by now he was older than me. It was a sideline while I was working at the Aircraft.
"When V.J. Day came, management walked through the Aircraft and said, 'Everybody, give us your badge! You're going to go home. We'll let you know if we need you.'
"So we were all laid off. I was making very good money in the Aircraft, and when they pulled the rug from under me and said good bye, I was just sick. We had two little kids, and no job. I was thinking that we'd have to go back to Rhode Island, but I didn't want to do that I didn't want to go there and depend on my father-in-law. He was a nice man, you'd love him if you met him, but we wanted to be on our own.
"So I still had this business deal with Krol, but at the time, I had some issues with him, and I decided I could go into business on my own, get my own place. And I did, in 1945. I started the car lot on Main Street, across from the Memorial Corner Store (a convenience store on the corner of Main and Haynes Streets, which Doug also owned at one time). We had about 40 cars on the lot. Bantley Oil owned the property, and I rented it from them. I bought the property from them about 1975."
"It was still hard getting cars even after the war. We put ads in the newspaper Want to buy a car or sell your car?
"For one of the ads I put on a cowboy hat, and a cigar in my mouth, and a neckerchief like the cowboys. I put a sign on the hat, 'Honest Douglas, a car-happy car-poke, has arrived in town with a carload of cash for your used cars.' That's verbatim as it was. I had the picture taken on Main Street in Hartford."
Dealers used to come up from the South to buy cars from as far away as Georgia during the 1940s. The business changed in the 1950s, as cars became more plentiful, and as the big car auction was established in South Windsor.
Doug specialized in cars for people who couldn't get financing. "I called them 'Unfortunate people,' I didn't call them deadbeats. Talking about them, I'd say, "You know, these people here are just in trouble all the time.
"I wanted to run an ad with a picture of myself with my pants down, with the headline, 'Have You Been Caught Like This Because Of Previous Bad Credit, Tough Luck, Repossessions, Bankruptcy, etc?' I brought the picture into the Manchester Evening Herald and the ad manager said they wouldn't run it in the paper, but old Tom Ferguson said it was OK to run.
"The ad went on:
In another ad, Doug dressed up with a doctor's coat and stethoscope, and addressed three "patients" with signs on their backs: Repossessed, Bankrupt, and Ex-Con. The headline refers to Dr. Honest Douglas, who "has a remedy" to help you get a car even if your credit is bad.
Doug had a niche, selling to people who couldn't afford to buy a new car. The buyer had to come in every week to make
the car payment.
Doug says, "They had to pay every week. Let me tell you these were people who could give you $10 a week, but they couldn't give you $30 a month. They couldn't get it up. I figured out that if you gave them terms of $25 a month, they couldn't do it and pay their rent. But $10 a week, they could do it.
"We kept track with file cards. And we kept a key for each car, so we could repossess it. Also, we'd sell them a good car. You see, if you were a deadbeat and went to a regular dealer to buy a car, they'd sell you a junker that they wanted to get rid of. They wouldn't sell you a good car, because they thought you weren't going to pay for it. So they would sell you a car like a big Buick or a big Chrysler or a Packard something they couldn't get rid of, any kind of clunker they could. And then the buyer couldn't start the car. Obviously he's not going to pay for it.
"But I did the reverse! I bought cars that needed work on them, and I fixed them so they would run right, so when the guy was going to work, when he went out in the morning to start the car, it would go. I made it so the guy would be losing something if I took the car back.
"I remember one guy who came in to buy a car name something like McCloud and he was a real bad deadbeat. I told him, 'You'd better make your payments or I'm going to be after you.' Well, he stopped making the weekly payments. When he found out we were coming after him, he came into the lot when I wasn't there. He came in and gave the guy who was working for me, a check. It was made out to Dr. Diskan. McCloud's mother had made out a check to Dr. Diskan, and this guy took it out of the mailbox, mind you! That's a federal offense! He took it out of the mailbox, signed it on the back, and gave it to my man, and GOT THE CHANGE! I said to my man, 'Are you crazy? He stole the check! Don't you see that?'"
Doug said that in the case of McCloud, he did have to repossess the car. But McCloud had put four new white sidewall
tires on the car.
"When we took the car back, we said, 'You are not getting that car back. I don't want to deal with a crook like you any more.'
"McCloud went to Attorney Harold Garrity, and Harold called me up, 'Honest Doug, you took a car back from McCloud?'
"I said, 'Yeah.'
"Garrity said, 'He's got four new tires on it, and he wants them back.'
"I said, 'Like hell.'
"Garrity said, 'You mean you won't give them back?'
"I said, 'Of course I won't. You know better than that, Harold. It became part of the whole, on the car. I'm not going to give them back to him.' We never saw any more of him."
Doug continues, "Then we had another guy, a young guy, married with three or four kids, and a girlfriend on the side. He didn't make his payments, and we couldn't catch him. I found out he used to go with his girlfriend to the drive-in in Bolton. I went to the Bolton drive-in to repossess the car right there. So I'm talking to them, and all around, the people were saying, 'Shh, shhh,' so they could hear the movie. The guy was in the back seat with his girlfriend! The girlfriend gave me the money for the car payment. That's the kind of thing that happened in this business."
As time passed, Doug wouldn't finance a car if the buyer didn't live very close to Manchester it was too hard to repossess the car. But one time, he and Norris drove all the way to Schenectady, N.Y. to get a car back.
"When the guy bought the car, he lived in Willimantic, and I used to take loans in Willimantic, because I had a driving school out there with Lewis Arno, the insurance man. I used to teach people how to drive. And then we'd sell them a car if we could. So this guy lived in Willimantic. He had five or six friends out there, all buying cars from me. If you let ONE get away with defaulting, then the rest of them would have done the same. But I showed them! We went all the way to New York. And one of this guy's pals said, 'Man, I didn't think you'd go all the way to Schenectady for that junk.' It killed me to go up there to get it, take another car and driver with me, but I had to let people know I was serious."
But, Doug said, the threat of repossession was more common than the act. When buyers came onto the lot, Doug would make
it plain that cars would be repossessed.
One scenario he used during a sale was to ask the customer to excuse him for a moment. He would then turn to Norris Fogg, his employee, and ask him if Murphy had called, and whether Murphy had made his payment. The employee, who knew the routine, would go and make the telephone ring (in those days, you could dial 1199 and the phone would ring). Doug would pick up the phone, and answer, "Douglas Motors. Who? Oh, Counselor Harris, and you're talking about Murphy? Yes, we repossessed the car. No, I'm not giving it back to him. He's got to come in with the payment." Doug and Norris would go through a story like this in front of the customer, and the customer usually got the message.
In another case, Doug told customers they had to pay a $50 finance charge, but if they didn't miss any payments, Doug would knock the finance charge off all together. Doug chuckled, "But they'd miss the second payment! They were just saturated deadbeats, that's all! Dead, but just not embalmed yet, as I used to say in the advertisements."
If somebody came in with cash, Doug would negotiate about the price. But he had to make sure they really had the cash. "They used to come a lot because of the ads. And I had to know who I was doing business with. I'd talk with them and get around the bush by saying, 'How are you going to pay for it?' If they had cash, I would dicker with that guy. But some buyers would say they read the ad in the paper, and refer to the ad as saying 'Nothing down.' But I had never said 'Nothing down.' I said, 'Small down payments.' Then I'd find out the guy is a deadbeat. He is not going to get any 'price' on the car. That way I knew I was covered if I had to chase him."
Doug tried to get employees to do the same, but they didn't catch on to the technique. "It was very hard to get somebody to work with me the way I wanted it done. For example, I wanted the employee to tell a customer, that he would negotiate with him, and they could come up with a deal, saying, 'Oh, the hell with Doug. Tell me how much you want to pay. I get a commission if I sell you the car.'" This technique would help the salesman determine a ballpark figure to start negotiating.
Buyers had to make their weekly payments, but Doug didn't care how long it took them to pay it off, just so long as they paid Didn't put any time limit on it.
I asked Doug what advice he would give to people going into the car business. He said that if you're a used car dealer,
you're going to be thought of as a crook anyway, so you have to get used to it. "In the old days, they used to talk about
putting sawdust in the rear end of a car. It was supposed to be an old trick. I never in my life ever heard of anybody
doing that. But they used to accuse me of putting sawdust in the rear end."
Doug encouraged buyers to take the car to a different mechanic and have it checked over. "Take it over to Don Willis," he would say, "and make sure it's OK."
Sometimes the other garage would tell the buyer that the brakes or ball joints were shot and needed immediate replacement, when actually they were fine. Doug would have to convince the buyer that he was being scammed, by actually taking the wheels off and showing that the brakes were fine. There were many shady practices in the used car business back in the 1940s and 1950s, including turning back the odometer to make it appear that the car had low mileage.
Doug spoke highly of Walter Carter, who started Carter Chevrolet. Doug used to buy cars from Walt when he had a lot near the Armory Tavern. When Walter got a car in trade that he didn't want, he'd sell it to Doug. "Now, Walter Carter was the nicest, most honest guy I ever met. So if I got a customer who came into my lot and called Walter a crook, I knew he was a deadbeat, for sure."
"I tried to do what I thought was right. I really did. If a car needed something fixed and if we could afford it, we'd fix it."
In his long and colorful life, Doug also had a slipcover business reupholstering the interior of cars. He also backed
a man building houses. "We built seven houses. I didn't lose my shirt, but I lost the buttons."
As a youngster, Doug had wanted to go into acting, and he had an audition in a talent search, but he was too young. And his father wanted him to get a real job.
As it turned out, Doug was able to use his dramatic talents to advantage in other lines of work. He has some heart trouble now, and has trouble getting around. His wife died in 2003, and he lives with one of his daughters in Manchester.
He still can tell wonderful stories about the used car business, and has a wonderful memory for the details of the old days.