By Julie Ann Madden
Editor’s Note: This is the second in a two-part series on Dirks Motor Company changes.
Ninety years ago, “cars were few and far between. Some people thought they would never “catch on,” but others who were more prescient would visualize a time when the automobile would become America’s primary mode of transportation,” according to Akron Centennial Book’s “Dirks Motor Company” entry.
“One day in 1923 Ed Dirks left Brunsville, where his family lived, to buy a car from Fred Meske who was the nearest Ford dealer in the area,” it is written. “The car deal was never consummated because Ed bought the business…instead of carpentry work building barns, Ed and his brothers, Henry and Bill, became partners in the precarious adventure of selling cars.”
“In 1923, a new Ford cost $350, which was quite a bit of money…all the friends and relatives of the new partners predicted the three young men would be back in Brunsville in six months and broke.”
Henry handled the business end and Ed and Bill were the salesmen for the new company, “Dirks Motor Company,” which not only sold vehicles but made auto repairs, too, in a building where the Akron Post Office is located now.
Back then, Ford vehicles were shipped in railroad boxcars with the body and chassis separate. They had to be unloaded, moved and then assembled at the garage. The Model T Ford was in its prime years.
When the Great Depression hit, it almost ended the business. The meager profits could not support three families so Bill left the garage and built a filling station at the corner of Second and Mill Streets, which was later owned and operated by the Hartmann Brothers and then Groon Brothers.
“It was tough,” said Dick Dirks, who has sold the family’s business after 90 years. “My dad (Ed) had to sell life insurance at night to survive.”
However, his dad was always proud of the fact that in one year of the Depression, there were only 13 new cars sold in Plymouth County, and he had sold nine of them. There had been three or four car dealers in both Le Mars and Akron plus dealers in Kingsley and Remsen but Dirks Motor Company was where people bought their cars.
“My father was a really good salesman,” said Dick. “We set goals for our salesmen of selling 10 to 12 cars per month. The last year before World War II, my dad sold 240 new cars and all the trade-ins by himself.”
A few years later, they acquired the Chevrolet division of General Motors, selling both Ford and GM products for a time span. They later dropped the Ford line and became solely Chevrolet dealers.
In May 1953, Dick Dirks, returned home after graduating from Iowa State University with honors and completing his service in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. He bought out his Uncle Henry’s half of the business.
He and his wife, the former Helen Donnelly of Elk Point, S.D., have four children: Carla Granstrom of Sioux City; Mary and her husband, Mike Caskey of Akron; Rick and his wife, Robin of Akron; and David and his wife, Ellen of Sioux City.
In 1965, Dirks Motor Company moved to its current location at 300 Hwy 12 N.
In 1977, the Oldsmobile line of the GM division was acquired when Dirks Motor Company purchased Kerr Motor Company, located at 241 Mill St., from Robert Kerr Jr. The Kerr building became Dirks’ auto body shop.
After Rick and David graduated from college, they each purchased one-fourth of their grandfather’s half of the business, joining their father in the family business. Rick joined in 1979 as vice-president and David as secretary in 1981. Mary also joined the family business in 1978 as office manager.
In 1987, they once again added the Ford line with the purchase of Rod’s Fords from Rod Reoh. Dirks Motor Company now had a complete line of Chevrolet, Oldsmobile and Ford vehicles to sell.
On Sept. 29, 1988, the Dirks family held a grand opening of their new expanded business facility with a showing of the 1989 new cars.
“Theoretically, the last eight to 10 years, I’ve been here every day but the boys have been running it,” said Dick, who is officially retiring now. Mary is also retiring while Rick and David Dirks are continuing to work for the new company, Total Motors.
Between Dick and his three children, they have over 150 years experience in the auto industry.
Since the beginning of the month, Dick has been cleaning out his office.
“I’ve found a lot of memories as I went through stuff here,” he told The Akron Hometowner.
He served on several regional, state and national boards for dealerships over his 60 years of ownership.
Dick earned many trips for Chevrolet and Oldsmobile sales achievements. He and his wife have been to Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore and Europe as well as they turned down trips to China and Australia that he won. He also won trips in the continental United States for Ford sales.
“You don’t see manufacturers offering such sales contest prizes any more,” said Dick. “They’ve changed ways of doing things.”
Their accomplishment trophies will probably be the last to leave his office — especially those for his 50-year milestone as a Chevrolet dealer and the company’s 80-year dealership honor.
Dick has also served three terms on a Ford advertising group for the Minneapolis, Minn., region.
The slogan, “Cars are like eggs; they’re cheaper in the country,” is still remembered by those who saw Dirks Motor Company’s television ad where each of Dirks’ salesmen passed an egg on a spoon across the showroom until it reached Dick, who dropped the egg. It cracked, and out came a chick, chirping “Cheap, Cheap, Cheap.”
If I was going to be here again, I’d run it again, smiled Dick. “It was so corny nobody wanted me to run it…The making of a good ad is people remember it, and 10 or 12 years later people are still asking me if I’m dropping eggs.”
During the President Jimmy Carter years, the Dirks “damn near went under” when interest rates hit 21 – 23 percent, he said. We had a whole lot full of cars that nobody could afford to pay for, leaving us struggling to pay the high interest.
“It was a real critical time,” said Dick. “We survived it.”
Since then Oldsmobile went out of business.
“We sold more Olds than Chevy and Fords,” said Dick. “As far as cars, that was a dumb mistake when they got rid of Oldsmobiles.”
In 2009, General Motors took bankruptcy, cancelling franchises across the country. Dirks Motor Company was the only Chevrolet dealership in Plymouth County to survive.
They still have the Ford dealership — they had to have a “divider” between the Chevrolets and the Fords in the showroom, said Dick with a twinkle in his eyes. “The divider is the moveable literature rack.”
“We’ve gone through many changes with the corporations we deal with,” said Dick. “The regulations have just gotten so ridiculous the last few years. Everyone complains about that.”
Not being able to have a franchise financing floor-plan caused the end of Dirks Motor Company, said Dick.
“I can honestly say in all the 60 years I have been in this business, we never ever had higher quality better cars than we have now,” he said, noting they last much longer now and people drive them so much more. “We went from standard transmissions to automatic transmission. You never sold a car with air conditioning when I started, and it’s evolved. Now you never sell a car or truck without air conditioning.”
“It’s funny,” said Dick. “With the small population here, we sold up to between 400 and 500 cars a year.”
“We had a very loyal and large following out of Sioux City,” he said. “That’s where the people are. You can’t sell cars without people. Consequently, 35 to 40 percent of our sales were to Sioux City people who would drive up here, buy a car and then have it serviced here.”
“It’s been very rewarding,” said Dick, giving credit to his employees.
Over the years, there have been several people who have worked at Dirks Motor Company until they reached retirement age: Dick Coyle, Tom Miller, the late Bill Miller, Phil Bernard, Gene Kadinger, Don Peters and Bob Nielsen to name a few.
“At one time we had 20 to 25 people working here,” said Dick, noting either himself or his sons knew the people who bought the cars. “They weren’t just a number with us, and if they had a complaint or anything else, they knew who to go to.”
“I think one of the reasons we did the business out of Sioux City is you get a lot more personal service in a smaller dealership,” said Dick, noting many of their employees had worked 35 years or so.
For instance, Dick handed a letter dated 1996 he’d received from a stranded motorist, commending employee Ed Robotham and his wife, Pam, for helping them. The Robothams not only provided shelter for the Clarion couple and their children but let them take his vehicle home. Then Ed repaired theirs and drove to Storm Lake the next morning to meet the couple and exchange vehicles.
“Over the years, we’ve been successful because we have people who have cared like that,” said Dick. “You do that because you want to — not because you have to.”
“We thank all our loyal customers for supporting us for 90 years,” said David. “We also thank all of our employees we’ve had over the years.”
“Sixty years have gone awful fast,” said Dick. “It seems like it has anyhow. We’ve had some good times and we’ve made a lot of friends.”
“One of the things I wish I’d had brains enough to keep is some of those old cars that we traded-in,” said Dick, wondering how much some of those early Corvettes would be worth now. “I was selling cars and I didn’t have room to store some of those old things.”
“I’ve never been a collector,” he said, adding although he does have a 1935 Chevy Coupe that his dad sold new and took back as a trade-in.
Dick plans to play more Pinochle and more golf, and traveling and fishing are also at the top of his retirement list.
“I’ve been retired for 8 or 10 years,” said Dick, “but I’ve been here all the time. I don’t know what I’ll do — try to learn to sleep in in the morning. I’ve never learned that habit.”
“The town and the area have been good to us,” said Dick. “We’ve been good for the town. Over the years we’ve brought a lot of people here. We’ve employed a lot of people. It’s been a two-way street.”
“It’s been a long ride,” said Dick. “Fun at times. Not so fun at times. Pretty rewarding I’d say.”
“We invite everybody to come in and support Total Motors,” said Rick.