Magazine writing: The last Studebaker dealership

Back in the early 70s I bumped into an editor for Boston Magazine at a party.  We chatted, and by the time we parted company he had asked me to do a story for him.  I had been telling him about an idea I had for a story about one of the nation’s last Studebaker dealerships, which was still operating in Revere Beach, near Boston, years after Studebaker had stopped producing automobiles. I wrote this story and they sent me a check. As far as I know, they never published it.

By ARTHUR FREDERICK

The Revere Beach Parkway is a windy road, and Feldman Motors squats on the apex of one of the curves, so small that the line of rusty cars nosed up to the sidewalk is only a dull blur in the corner of your eye as you drive past.

If you turn your head and slow down a little, you can pick them out; a Studebaker Lark and a couple of Hawks. There’s a Packard, one of the last models built, and it looks like it might have been red.

It is dark inside Feldman Motors, but there is some noise in the back of the shop and in a few minutes Irving Feldman shuffles out to the front, peering through think glasses. He is 65, and he’s been here for 20 years.

Feldman had chuckled on the phone and hedged suspiciously about being interviewed. “Oh, well, I can’t afford it right now,” he said. No charge, he was told, but he’s still not sure.

“Who do you work for? No bullshit?” He examines the press cards, turning them over to read the back.

He moves to the back of the shop to talk to a customer. The shop is full of yesterday’s cars. Packard Clippers, Studebaker Hawks and Cruisers. A white Hawk stands near the door, and the street noise disappears when you shut the door and squirm into the red leather seat. The clock is ticking, and automobile clocks never work.  The odometer says 9,000 miles, but Feldman says it’s probably 109,000.

“In 1955, the best days of my life I had here, we were selling, servicing, we had a group of 12 men. Then, 10 years later, the bottom dropped out of it.”

The bottom began to crumble when the Studebaker Packard Corp. decided to drop the Packard line in the late 1950s.  Feldman Motors and Studebaker-Packard dealers across the country found themselves dealing in nothing but Studebakers. It was a worrisome time for the dealers, but Studebaker was showing signs of resuscitation; they redesigned the Lark and came out with the Avanti, a beautiful four-seater with a fiberglass body and an optional supercharger.

It wasn’t enough. Studebaker moved its car-making operations to Canada for two years before the Studebaker joined that Big Hudson Hornet in the Sky in 1966.

“I had four Studebakers on order when we got the news from the company,” Feldman said. “I called the customers and told them they didn’t have to take the cars if they didn’t want to. But I told them I would stay here and carry parts, and service the cars if they bought them. They all bought the cars.”

1959_Studebaker04_AdIt’s hard to forget the good days, the mid-1950s, when Feldman Motors was selling cars, when 12 men in the back were repairing the Packard Clippers amd Patricians and Studebaker Hawks. And the fall – the decline of Studebaker-Packard – is hard to forget, too.

“They (Packard) went out of business and for a few years we were doing wonderful. We just took all Studebakers, then, even they lasted less than 10 years on their own and then they’re out.

“We work, we make a living, but it is a hard living now.”

It’s not hard to take yourself back to 1955 and imagine Irving Feldman tooling a big Packard Patrician with dealer plates into his dealership, walking into his showroom in a blue suit to talk to a customer. Today, he wears baggy pants and a faded blue sport shirt open at the neck. Today, his showroom is empty.

Or at least empty of cars. The knotty pine room is cluttered with filing cabinets, and with desks piled high with headlights, magazines and spare parts. The banners and streamers are dirty and dull, but they still beat Studebaker’s drum: “Continuity of Styling Protects Your Investment!” – “Extra Value Features!” – “Studebaker, The Common Sense Car!”

There is a framed picture on the wall showing a 50-year-old Irving Feldman at a sales dinner. He’s wearing that blue suit.

Feldman beams and points to a plaque under the picture, and he asks his brother Sam to read it.

“In recognition of 25 years of loyal business association,” says Sam, and Irving brushes it off by saying he received it about 10 years ago.

Sam used to work with his brother, but he’s sick and now just comes to visit.

“I got no stomach, they took it out,” Sam says, and he shoves his hand into his abdomen to show that it is truly devoid of stomach. Sam, like his brother, feels better talking about the time when the business was good, when he was strong. He labors to his feet and walks to the far showroom wall and points to a sign.

It shows a little boy and girl, and they are smiling. It says, “High Performance – Low Upkeep. Packard, $847.” Sam says they got the sign in the early 1940s, and says he just found it in the cellar a few days before.

He sits down heavily again because it is hard for him to stay on his feet.

“It used to be I could pick up the front of that car and turn it around so it’s pointing in the other direction,” Sam says, and he looks it. “Now, I’ve been sick for 12 years.”

Irving has been on the phone, and he hangs up and giggles.

“That’s a guy with a 1937 Packard and he wants a valve job. He said to me, ‘I saw your ad in the phonebook,’ so I told him we haven’t done one of those for years but we’ll do it for $75.”

Irving Feldman is getting a little fidgety, and he says he has to go pick up a customer’s car in Brookline. “Perhaps tomorrow we finish?”

Tomorrow. Irving’s shuffle has changed to a trot when he comes to the front of the garage, and he’s grinning broadly.

“Come here, come over here, I want to show you something.” He leads the way to a 1959 Lark, a repainted hardtop, and climbs in.

“We just put a new engine in it. You must listen to it.” The old car cranks over for a second and catches, revs for a second and settles down to a purr. Irving Feldman is purring, too.

“That’s beautiful, just beautiful.” Feldman is twisted around, clutching the steering wheel and peering through his glasses out the window, grinning, almost bouncing in the torn seat. “The guy is going to be so happy.”

The car had been in the garage for several days. The engine was installed by Irving and one of his two mechanics, an old man who hasn’t said a word.

“That man,” Feldman says, “he’s been with me for 25 years. He’s deaf and he can’t speak and he’d an excellent mechanic. I’ve always given him raises when he doesn’t expect them.”

Then Feldman’s face grows sober again, and it is back to 1955.

“The Studebaker parts depot was right across the street here and my parts business boomed,” he said. “We were doing on the average $12,000 per month in parts. Now we do $800 a month, maybe $1,000 once in a while.”

Car sales are almost nonexistent.

”Now and then I still sell, but I haven’t got much to sell,” he said.

He waves through the dirty window of the showroom to the lot outside.

“There’s lots of cars out there, but most of them are no good. Some of my customers that I sold new cars to, they come, they say they are going to buy another car, maybe a Chrysler, and they say if you want the car you can have it. If they are worth fixing up, maybe I pay them $100, $200. Now I find they are getting a little bit scarce.”

Irving Feldman will sell a good Hawk for about $600, a Lark for a couple of hundred less. The only Lark he won’t sell is his own. It is an air conditioned Cruiser with power steering and brakes and an AM-FM radio that is absolutely without flaw. He’s put 7,000 miles on it since he bought it used in 1966. The Cruiser is only for special occasions. Today he is driving an ancient Chevrolet Biscayne.

Irving Feldman is loyal to his customers and loyal to Studebaker-Packard, which explains probably best why he still operates Feldman Motors.

“There’s plenty of other cars. I remember from Chrysler, they came to me and I talked to them. I said I am doing still alright, I have so many customers and I’m loyal to them. They bought cars from me, not because of the cars, really.”

People from Mercury came, too.

“They said, ‘You won’t even have to sell the cars, Ed Sullivan will sell them for you.’ Ed Sullivan ‘s television show was sponsored by Mercury then, you know? I said to them, ‘Listen, when I married my wife she was a beautiful, beautiful girl. Now she is old and she’s sick and she is not so beautiful. But I still love her and to me she is still beautiful.’ You know what I mean?”

Irving Feldman stays for his customers, and a surprising number of them drive their old Larks and Avantis into his yard.

“I have thousands of friends. Like I go to New York sometimes and I meet somebody and I say ‘Hi.” And that’s it, you can say “hi’ and feel that you can shake hands. I strived really to do business in a nice honest way. But not like most dealers. I feel if I meet someone I haven’t seen for a long time and he comes and we shake hands, I know we’re friends. I can look them in the eye.”

The ad in the yellow pages promises service for Studebakers and Packards indefinitely. But indefinitely is not forever, and Irving Feldman is thinking about the end.

“I would like 10 more years. Maybe another year here, and then some time to see my children, my grandchildren,” he said.

“People have asked me about selling the place. I have talked to two people, but it turned out they had no money. But if someone comes in with a good offer, I’ll sell it. Studebaker is out since 1966, and Packard’s been out longer than that.”

He doesn’t like to talk about closing up, and he says he knows what happens to men when they retire and don’t work anymore.

“But I’d sell it,” he said.  “I stayed too long anyway.”

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