From the late Teens to the late ’60s, Oak Park reigned as a destination for car buyers. Most of that business was centered on Madison, so much so that the area was known as “Auto Row.” From the early 1920s through the 50s, the village ranked behind only Chicago’s famed Motor Row and Rockford as a top destination for car buyers. In part two of our look at Auto Row, we consider some of the personalities-and some of the underside-of the business.

One of Oak Park’s own

Oak Park resident Jim Long found himself around automobles soon after he was born in a house at 708 Wesley Ave. in 1930. His father, Thomas, had started in the business at Collins Cadillac in 1915 before moving on to manage the huge Cadillac operation built at 820 Lake St. (now Comcast Cable) in 1928. In 1933, the elder Long started the Pontiac dealership at 710-12 Madison.

Now 76 and working as a salesman at Westmont BMW, the memories are still clear and strong.

More than a salesman, Jim Long was a born mechanic, who enjoyed tinkering with car parts. As luck would have it, with most every older Oak Park teenager off serving in the military between 1941 and 1945, he found himself in demand as a mechanic despite being only 12 years old. One day, he had enough parts to make a complete car, which he did and then sold. It was an epiphany.

“I thought, this is easier than being a mechanic,” Long recalls with a laugh.

And better paying too. Long started his own used car lot, a 50-foot-wide site, at the southwest corner of East Avenue and Madison in 1951-52. His budding career was interrupted by the draft in 1953. After spending two years in the Far East, he returned and worked at a dealership for a few months before starting another used car lot in Forest Park at 7644 Madison.

In 1958 he had the opportunity to purchase a small Ford dealership in Bensenville. Four years later he would buy the business that would become the largest auto dealership in the world at the time-Long Chevrolet in Elmhurst. He’s modest about the dealership’s success, saying simply, “The market was there [at the time].”

Long definitely can take credit for an advertising campaign in the ’70s that was as successful as it was inexpensive-the Long Chevy newsboy featuring Jim Long’s nephew, Timmy Long.

It all came about, Long said, because he couldn’t get any advertising agencies to do what he wanted.

“That was my idea,” he acknowledges. “I was looking for a commercial to emulate the old Phillip Morris cigarette ads (which featured a bellhop hollering, “Call for Phillip Morris!”)

Long found his “bellboy” while on vacation in Florida with his 11-year-old nephew Timmy.

“He had a yell that could shatter a beer bottle at 50 yards,” Long said, laughing. When he heard his nephew, he knew he’d found his star.”This is the kid,” Long recalled saying. “We’ll make him our newsboy.”

The first commercial featured Timmy dressed in rolled-up jeans and his uncle’s cap, playing an old-fashioned newsboy touting the deals at Long Chevrolet.

While the ad agencies tried to sell Long time during the television newscasts, he held firm, insisting that the demographic that watched the news wasn’t his audience. “The stuff that did us good was the sitcoms, which were cheap,” he said.

It became a part of Chicago television history, with Timmy calling out “Extra! Extra!” and telling people about the latest “news” from Long Chevrolet.

On one memorable occasion, he called out “Extra” and looked down at the printed headline, “The kid gets pie in face.” He looked up with a puzzled smile just in time for someone to push a pie in his face.

Told that Timmy didn’t look like he knew what was coming, Long replied, “Neither did I.”

Some people called Timmy “grating,” but his uncle called him pure gold. Long said they tracked sales for the month after the ads first appeared. “They went up 700 percent,” he said.

Timmy and his newspaper graced Chicago television for around five years, and Long reaped the benefits, becoming the largest dealership in America.

“We just rode that commercial, producing different variations,” he said.

You can see the snippet on YouTube under “Long Chevrolet commercial.”

Accusations of fraud, coercion

As with any business, there were instances of alleged fraud and other bad business practices both by dealerships and by the huge corporations that provided their product.

As a young man, Long worked for one of the most colorful characters to ever do business in Oak Park, Harold C. Trownsell.

“He was probably the smartest guy I ever met,” said Long. “Some people would call him eccentric.”

The federal government called him, to put it kindly, tax delinquent. Trownsell, who owned Trownsell Motors at 610 Madison and Chicago Avenue Chevrolet, served three years in federal prison after pleading guilty to evading $672,000 in income taxes in 1954.

In 1964, Trownsell was again indicted on conspiracy charges for stashing $540,000 in a Swiss bank account in a continued attempt to avoid paying taxes. By then married with a child and facing five years in prison and a hefty fine, Trownsell actually traveled to Switzerland to retrieve what was left of the funds-$410,000-and turned the some over to a forgiving government, which was so appreciative of his cooperation, they revoked his conviction.

 In the mid ’30s, River Forester Fred Emich’s Emich Motors did strong business at 133 Madison, but went bust after General Motors canceled his contract. The auto giant claimed it was Emich’s fault, that he was under-capitalized and engaged in questionable business practices.

But Emich, a tough, no-nonsense veteran who had been severely wounded in World War I, wasn’t about to back down. Emich countered that he was targeted by the corporation because he preferred to use his own finance company rather that GM’s own General Motors Acceptance Corporation. In 1939 Emich sued GM under the Sherman Anti-trust act in a landmark case. GM denied the accusations, but a jury in 1948 returned a verdict in Emich’s favor, which resulted in judgments of treble damages ($1,236,000), as well as assessing $257,358.10 for costs and attorneys’ fees.

The 4th District Court of Appeals later concluded that the criminal judgment was prima facie evidence “that defendants had been guilty of a conspiracy to restrain dealers’ interstate trade and commerce in General Motors cars for the purpose of monopolizing the financing essential to the movement of those cars.”

The case was overturned on appeal on technicalities in 1950, however, and a new trial ordered in an opinion written by Judge Otto Kerner Sr. (father of the future Illinois governor). In 1955, Federal Judge Julius Hoffman (of later Chicago Seven fame) threw Emich’s retrial case out of court because it was originally filed May 27, 1938, which was 21 days past the then-two-year statute of limitations. Hoffman’s ruling was upheld on appeal the next year.

Targeted by feds or the mob

Sometimes the feds, local authorities and others went after the dealerships.

In 1945 Tom Harrigan and his sales manager, Delbert I. Manning, were charged in federal court for violating provisions of the federal Emergency Price Control Act.

According to a newspaper article, the dealership was accused of selling cars at $200 to $770 in excess of ceilings, and was keeping a double set of books.

A decade later, John C. Clayton, head of Clayton Motors, 316 Madison, was indicted along with his sales manager on forgery and conspiracy charges after complaints from three customers.

Oak Park resident and Cicero car dealer Emil Denemark found himself entangled with people-the Chicago mob-who probably made him wish he’d been indicted instead. Over a four-year period, the wealthy auto dealer’s home and business were both robbed and bombed by mobsters, and his chauffer shot to death.

In February 1927, the rear of his house at 600 Clinton Ave. was blown up with a black powder bomb. His children and their nanny, at home at the time, were uninjured. Three weeks later, the showroom of his auto dealership at 3860 Ogden in Cicero was blown up, causing $15,000 damage and severely injuring an employee.

Not just Madison

Ironically, the village’s most successful auto dealership wasn’t located on Madison, but at 15 Chicago Ave., the site of Trownsell’s old business. Brigance Chevrolet was run by David Brigance from 1953 until 1975 when he retired. Brigance had his share of trials and tribulations, weathering everything from armed robberies to opposition to expansion plans to the vagaries of the market. His experience also foreshadowed the neighborhood forces that would in part lead to most auto dealerships moving elsewhere.

In 1965, Brigance wanted to expand his business and sought a change in the block’s zoning from business to commercial. That led to heated opposition from neighbors and a five-hour meeting with the zoning commission, which later approved the rezoning, but the lot was never built.

In the process of arguing for special consideration from the village, Brigance gave some insight into what auto dealers could mean to the village economically.

Oak Park Auto Dealers Association President Larry Faul told the zoning committee in 1965 that Brigance Chevy drew 38,000 car buyers into the village annually. Brigance attorney Emil Bloche stated that the dealership paid $86,000 annually in sales taxes, and another $3,500 in real estate taxes.

As late as 1987, according to a Wednesday Journal article, the five remaining auto dealers in the village accounted for over $1 million in sales tax revenue, not to mention hundreds of jobs.

Fading vestiges, modern technology

Over the years, several Madison Street sites have burned down, others gave way to the wrecking ball, and still others were transformed by adaptive reuse. The only auto dealers currently doing business in Oak Park are Foley Rice Cadillac, 711 Madison St., and Shepard Motor Sales, which moved recently from 260 Madison St. and became Volvo of Oak Park, doing solid business at 1140 Garfield St. (It unveiled its new seven story “car tower” last Thursday, an instant land mark and one of two in the world.)

Still, more than 90 years after it all started, the architectural vestiges of that era can be seen up and down Madison, if you know how and where to look. The Chicago Tribune archives and the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest offer invaluable resources for interested journalists, as do the newspaper microfiche files at the Oak Park Public Library.

Just as importantly, the Village of Oak Park completed its Madison Street Corridor Plan this past May as part of ongoing planning for the redevelopment of the two-mile commercial corridor (available on line on the village’s website.)

In the process of attempting to determine the future of an important Oak Park commercial corridor, officials created a helpful and informative guide to historical Madison Street that offers glimpses of the grandeur and excitement of the village’s original commercial strip.

Jim Long moved on from Oak Park decades ago, but he marvels at the unique environment here back in the middle of the 20th century. Ogden Avenue in Westmont, where he now works, is similar in terms of the selection of cars, “but you can’t walk from one dealership to the next.”

Long lived for several years at Cuyler and Madison, and recalled literally stopping by dealers on his way to work, purchasing trade-ins from dealerships to stock his own used car business.

By 11 [a.m.] I’d have a Cadillac, a Chevy, a Chrysler,” he said.

“There just won’t be a street like that ever again.”

Still unpopular with some today

By 1939 cars were such a part of the daily existence in Oak Park that the village government saw fit to pass an ordinance banning the parking of cars on streets overnight.

After a two-month trial period, the overnight parking ban became permanent on Nov. 1, 1939. As they still are to this day-well, night-autos were banned from all public streets between 2:30 a.m. and 6 a.m. The ordinance was opposed by a small group of residents who argued that the ban violated their constitutional rights. Eventually, though, even many of those opponents saw the benefit of having cars off the street at night.

News reports said the police chief showed officials from assorted towns the “municipal miracle” of 18,000 cars disappearing from village streets each night, a feat some outside officials had called “impossible.”

The vast majority of the populace obeyed the new law, though from Nov. 1 through Dec. 31, a total of 1,317 cars-somewhat more than half of them belonging to village residents-were ticketed. Fines ranged from $1 for first offenses to $3 for second and $5 for a third. Those ignoring a courts summons were liable for a then very hefty $50 fine.

Meanwhile, poor driving habits continued to cause serious problems in the village. In 1938 there were 982 automobile accidents, with 11 deaths and 254 injuries. The next year saw improvement, with 641 accidents, six dead and 181 injured.

-Bill Dwyer

Join the discussion on social media!

One reply on “‘Extra! Extra! Read all about it!’”