Four generations see dealership through floods, fires, war, Great Depression
Few car dealerships have survived the Great Depression, two world wars, arson, flooding and numerous gas crises, but Diehl Ford has emerged from the gauntlet of the 20th century as one of the oldest family-run Ford dealerships in the country.
Bob Diehl and his son, Mike, the third- and fourth-generation owners, attribute this success to an unwavering commitment to customer service, devoted employees and a supportive community.
“Longevity can be your greatest asset or it can also be your greatest weakness,” Bob said. “You can get very complacent and lose your intensity with people; so we work very hard to stay excited, committed and focused.”
Right now Diehl Ford is focused on its 100th birthday, which the dealership will celebrate June 7 to honor the day in 1908 when Hugh W. Diehl and Charlie Simpson took over a Ford dealership from Charles Stanbra.
In January 1922, Hugh Diehl bought out Simpson’s interest in the company and changed the name to Diehl Motor Company, Inc. thus founding a Diehl family legacy.
Alan Mulally, Ford Motor Company’s president and CEO will speak at the June 7 celebration where he said he will thank and congratulate the dealership for its leadership in the industry.
Mulally said he recently met with a number of Ford’s older, family-owned dealerships, which he called the “roots at the foundation of the Ford family.”
“It was amazing to meet the two, three and sometimes four generations who have dedicated their lives to our products,” Mulally said.
Working at the family business
Bob Diehl, 69, always thought he would go into the family business, but he hadn’t made a decision until he graduated from college and returned from a tour in the Army.
“In fact, I can remember my father said several times, ‘Look around. You don’t have to come back. Make sure you really want to do this,’” Bob said. “So there was never really any pressure.”
Mike Diehl’s decision to join the family business came later in his life after he had graduated from college and spent 10 years in the Navy.
“In the back of my mind I always anticipated coming back to Bellingham to get into the family business,” Mike said. “But I also knew that it was vitally important to go out and get some other experiences.”
Mike, 39, said he just couldn’t pass up the chance to raise a family in Bellingham and carry on the legacy of a then-90-year-old business.
“It’s a pretty rare opportunity to be involved in something like that,” said Mike, a married father of four.
While in the Navy, Mike was a pilot who flew $20 million aircraft and trained and managed military personnel.
“So having that kind of background I have a really good appreciation for all the different assets that we have here, including the people,” Mike said.
One of those people is Jerry Edmonds, Diehl Ford’s assistant parts manager, who has worked at the dealership for the past 44 years.
Edmonds said a lot has changed around the dealership in his time but the fact that Diehl Ford is a great place to work has remained a constant.
Edmonds recalled a time in the mid-‘60s when he planned a two-week trip to Texas but had to cancel when another employee got sick and had to go to the hospital, leaving Edmonds to work his shifts.
“Later when I rescheduled my trip, R.H. Diehl paid me for the whole time I was gone when I really only had about a week’s pay coming to me,” Edmonds said.
Edmonds also reminisced about a day in 1980 when rain and landslides forced water from the Lake Whatcom watershed into Whatcom Creek, which flooded the entire neighborhood surrounding Iowa Street and surprised the dealership with eight inches of standing water.
“The water got up so high that there used to be watermarks on the wall but you can’t see them anymore,” Edmonds said.
However, Diehl Ford is no stranger to calamity.
Rolling with the punches
In 1928, six years after Hugh Diehl bought out Charlie Simpson, Ford unveiled its Model A and by the end of the first day the car was on display, more than 13,500 people had come to view it. At the end of that year, Diehl Ford sold 495 cars, which set a sales record that stood until 1973. The future of Diehl Ford looked bright.
In 1929, America plunged into the Great Depression when people had trouble feeding their families, let alone buying new automobiles. Diehl Ford was forced to reevaluate its position.
“It was a Depression. Not a recession,” Bob said. “So what you do during those periods of time is you redirect your focus. There were times when my grandfather (Hugh Diehl) had multiple places around town reconditioning old cars when they couldn’t sell new cars.”
Between 1942 and 1945, auto production stopped due to World War II. With no new cars and few used cars available, the dealership focused on servicing vehicles and repairing delivery trucks.
“If people aren’t buying new cars, they need to fix the cars they’ve got,” Bob said. “So there are ways to adjust to it. You just remain flexible.”
A few years later on December 27, 1948, Bob was sledding near the top of Cornwall Avenue where the Diehl family used to live when he looked toward the dealership and saw smoke coming from the building.
“People said there must be a car on fire in there, but no, the whole building burned,” Bob said.
It was arson. Bob rushed down to the dealership with his father and grandfather to a sight and smell that haunts him to this day.
“I can still smell it,” Bob said. “It was terrible watching my father and grandfather go through that time—it was pretty emotional.”
The dealership kept on and opened a remodeled facility at the corner of Cornwall and Champion streets in July 1949. Soon after in 1951, Hugh Diehl’s son, R.H. Diehl took over as company president and in 1970, he moved the dealership to its current location at 1820 James St. and changed the company’s name to Diehl Ford.
Keeping it in the family
Some of Bob and Mike Diehl’s fondest memories of their family’s business are things that only family could get away with.
Both recalled how they learned to drive at the dealership well before they were of legal age. Bob said one of his earliest memories is flying down the ramps at the dealership on a mechanic’s creeper, a small board on four wheels.
“The dealership had three floors and I just flew around there,” Bob said.
Mike Diehl said when he was young, the dealership would do a lot of service on big trucks and when the circus would come to town, its trucks would be brought in for maintenance.
“I always used to think it was fun to crawl through all the trucks out in the shop,” Mike said.
Now instead of child’s play, Bob and Mike Diehl spend their time running their business.
Bob said running your own business can be a lot more stressful than other jobs.
“You have a feeling of stewardship when you’re running your own business that you don’t have when you’re working for someone else,” Bob said.
He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We’re one of the few relatively good-sized businesses that are independent—we do what we want to do,” Bob said. “We don’t have bean counters that tell us what to do and when to do it. And to an independent, motivated person, that’s kind of exciting.”
Bob and Mike also recognize the danger and difficulty of working with family.
“You can look all around and see train wrecks that are the result of working for family,” Bob said. “Sometimes it just doesn’t work and we try to make sure that doesn’t happen by having respect for each other and commitment from each other.”
Mike said he and his father have always had a business relationship at work that ends with the workday.
“He’s ‘Bob’ in front of all the employees,” Mike said. “When it’s off-time, it’s ‘Dad.’”
“You can’t forget the fact that you’re father and son but you’ve got a business to run and you’re not looking for special treatment,” Mike said.
Bob said that as owners of a family business, both he and Mike share a deep connection to the business and they feel a quiet pressure to build and improve on what their family has accomplished in the past.
“I think that’s pressure we put on ourselves. I think we always want to do better than our dads and grandfathers had done,” Bob said.
Diehl Ford: The Next Generation
What does Diehl Ford’s future hold?
Bob said people will always need to either buy new transportation or fix what they already have.
“What that is going to look like, I don’t know, but we are going to be here to provide it and when it breaks down—we’ll be here to fix it.”
Both Bob and Mike expressed excitement about Ford Motor Company’s future with Alan Mulally at the helm.
“There’s a lot of great buzz surrounding Ford right now,” Mike said.
Mulally said Henry Ford’s vision was to have Ford dealerships in every country with the ability to sell cars to each national consumer base, which has led to an emphasis on trucks and SUVs in the United States and smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles abroad. Now, Mulally is bringing some of the more fuel-efficient models to the United States.
“If you are a consumer concerned with sustainability and the environment, this is a really exciting time because your local Ford dealership is going to start carrying something for everyone.”
In 2002, Mike Diehl was named the Ford franchise’s successor and will take the business into the thick of the 21st century. He said planning for the future is already in the back of his mind.
“I’m sure when my dad took over it was in the back of his mind, too: ‘How do we improve this, so (the next generation) can take it over?’” Mike said. “I think of that all the time. But again, I think it will be very important for all of my kids to go out and do something else.”
Mike has four children: three sons, ages 12, 10 and 8, and a daughter who is 5.
“I always say, jokingly, that my daughter will be the one that takes it over because her brothers will be too busy bickering amongst themselves,” Mike said. “But right now they want to be professional soccer players. They are way too young to be focused on working here."
On June 7 at 1820 James St. the dealership will host a free, public celebration from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. including an antique car show, dealership tours, clowns, live music, food and a special appearance by Ford President and CEO Alan Mulally.
Diehl Ford Timeline
Ford Motor Co. founded by Henry Ford.
Hugh W. Diehl and Charlie Simpson take over Ford dealership from Charles Stanbra, calling it Diehl and Simpson.
Dealership feels the effects of WWI, with many of its men called to service.
Hugh Diehl purchases Charlie Simpson’s interest in the business, and the name changes to Diehl Motor Company, Inc.
Model A makes its debut. People wait in line even before the dealership opens at 8 a.m. to see the new car. By the end of the first day, 13,593 people come to view it.
Diehl weathers the Great Depression through good management, but not many cars are sold, and it’s a decade later before losses of that period are finally recouped.
Auto production stops due to WWII. With no new cars and few used cars available, the dealership turns its attention to service.
Dealership destroyed by arson. Dealership moves to temporary quarters on Railroad Avenue.
Completely remodeled facility opens at the corner of Cornwall and Champion.
Robert H. Diehl, Hugh’s son, becomes company president.
The company moves to its current location at 1820 James St. and changes its name to Diehl Ford.
The shutoff of oil supply from Arabian countries causes a 19 percent decline in new car sales and total volume drops from 494 vehicles sold in 1973 to 299 in 1974.
Double digit inflation, gas shortages and skyrocketing interest rates take toll on industry. Diehl’s sales fall 20 percent.
Robert C. (Bob) Diehl, Robert H.’s son, becomes company president.
The dealership suffers major flooding when torrential rains cause landslides and flooding in the Lake Whatcom watershed. The lake pours water into Whatcom Creek, causing major flooding in the entire Iowa Street neighborhood.
Mike Diehl, Bob’s son, was named nominee successor on the Ford franchise.
Mike Diehl is named General Sales Manager.
Bob Diehl is named Dealer of the Year by the Washington State Dealers Association.
Diehl Ford celebrates its 100th birthday. Diehl Ford is the third oldest auto dealership in the country. Only two others are older: Tenvoorde Ford in St. Cloud, Minn., founded in 1903; and Manley Motor Sales Co. in Belvedere, Ill., founded in 1906.