A New York Dodge Dealer and His Legacy
SOUTH SALEM, N.Y.
On Nov. 14, 1914, John and Horace Dodge, two bicycle makers turned automotive pioneers, began selling their first cars as the Dodge Brothers Motor Car Company.
The Dodge reputation was so great that thousands of people applied for the first dealerships. Twenty-five were chosen. No. 3 on the list was George T. Tator, an automobile mechanic in a rural slice of Westchester County, who managed to scrape together $800 and a horse to buy four and a half acres with a house and a barn outside South Salem.
In his first year he sold seven of the very first crop of $785 Dodges, using the barn as his garage and office and three horse stalls as bays for the cars. The next year he sold 12, and the year after that 20. Three years after it started, Dodge Brothers Motor Car Company was the fourth-largest automobile manufacturer in the country, and by the late 1920s, Mr. Tator and the five associate dealers now working under him were selling 250 cars a year.
Even then, the auto business could be a tumultuous one. Sales plummeted with the Depression and never surpassed their peaks in the 1920s. The Dodge brothers both died of flu in 1920. Five years later, their widows sold the company to the New York investment firm of Dillon Read & Company for the astonishing sum of $146 million. Walter Chrysler bought the company in 1928 for $170 million and since then it’s lived on as a Chrysler brand, its origins, for 99 percent of consumers, lost in the mists of time.
But if the corporate history got complicated, the Tator history became part of the fabric of local life and American myth. Mr. Tator took a damaged Dodge truck and added two 30-gallon soda and acid tanks to it, and it became the town’s first fire truck. The Fire Department kept its equipment at the dealership until 1953, mechanics dropping wrenches and jumping on the truck when there was a call.
Under George Tator, his son Charles and now Charles’s son, Chuck, it became a local institution the way car dealerships became part of the landscape in towns across the country.
Annual sales climbed to about 100 in the late 1940s and 1950s and then steadily declined as newer dealerships were established, and as buyers began moving away from American cars. Now 30 is a good year. But Tator’s managed to survive not just as a local institution but, improbably, as an international one. Chuck Tator, who still lives above the dealership, became known as one of the most proficient service people for Dodge Vipers, the $90,000 10-cylinder sports cars lusted after by car aficionados.
“He’s one of the absolute masters, the guy to go to on the whole Eastern seaboard, Canada or Europe,” said Scott Grayson, former president of the Viper owners club for New York and Connecticut. “And he’s old-school in the best way, like a doctor who makes house calls.”