Icons: Would You Buy a Used Car From This Man?
The 1967 smash hit “Windy,” by the Association, is blaring in cheerful mono over the P.A. system, and so — with a fresh, pungent assault of new leather in every breath — it’s easy to close your eyes for a few moments and imagine what a Saturday used to be like at the sprawling car dealership in Langhorne that’s now called Reedman-Toll Auto World.
You can conjure the days when a uniformed man stood right in the middle of Lincoln Highway, waving in a steady line of weekend drivers with license plates from Staten Island and North Jersey and Delaware, beefy World War II vets with platoons of Boomer babies, eager to ogle the hot new Chevy Camaro but maybe buy the more responsible, angular Rambler American. Plenty of Levittowners enjoying their day of rest from the white-hot U.S. Steel mill up the road in Fairless Hills zigzag through the thousands of cars that blanket the sprawling property — while a guard watches everything from a wooden tower that looks like something imported from Graterford.
In your fantasy, the founder, Ralph Reedman, is strolling along the seemingly endless showroom corridors, or maybe emerging draped in his exotic black cape from one of the narrow Moroccan-style doorways he designed, a shock of wild hair across his head.
Then you open your eyes to see a 21st-century reality that — like in The Wizard of Oz — isn’t as colorful as your 1967 dream. Reedman-Toll is literally a mall-sized dealership, connected showrooms a couple of football fields long — one for each make from Jaguar to Chevy. The Impalas and Dodge Darts have grown up into mini-vans and SUVs, their polished metal rendered dull by dank corridors barely lit by the oddly out-of-place chandeliers overhead, and the musty green carpets beneath their wheels.
There’s another dream-breaker: that “Toll” in the new name. Reedman the iconic car dealership has been gobbled up by Bruce Toll, half of the Toll Brothers of McMansion development fame, who will either save it or destroy it. Reedman had been going to seed for the better part of a generation as the car business changed and Ralph Reedman didn’t; when he died in 1994, his three aging brothers spent the next decade trying to unload the business on somebody with deep enough pockets for the $300-million-a-year dealership and its super-sized property. Toll, dipping into his home-building fortune, came to the rescue last spring.
But it’s easy to see why community groups in Langhorne thought Toll wanted Reedman for the land — the 123 acres are some of the choicest real estate in the northeastern United States, with both I-95 and the limited-access “trunk” of U.S. 1 skirting the property. Bruce Toll says no: “I tried to calm everybody’s fears — I’m spending a lot of money redoing the place, not tearing it down.”
The thing is, tearing down Reedman and building new condos would have been easy. Rebuilding the famed auto franchise will be much harder.
In the 1950s and 1960s, when it was known as Reedman Motor Car and Truck Corp., the Bucks County dealership was among the largest in the world, in size and possibly in sales. Ralph Reedman began selling cars in the mid-1940s to returning World War II vets at the rural Langhorne Speedway. (Long gone, it was across Lincoln Highway from the current dealership.) Reedman sold an unheard-of 60,000 cars annually — mostly American-made Chevys, Chryslers and Dodges — during those peak years of cheap gas and open highways.
The most amazing thing about Reedman — then and now — is the size of the property. It even includes two test tracks — one for would-be car buyers and another for mechanics. The main reason so many customers were willing to drive down from New York or up from Delaware was that with 8,000 cars on the lot, it was almost certain they could drive away with the one they wanted — in royal blue, if so desired — on that same day, which was unheard of in the 1960s.
Ralph Reedman and his brothers were fanatical about avoiding publicity and never spoke to reporters. They also seem to have been obsessed with security — a 1963 New York Herald-Tribune article (the reporter visited incognito) notes the guard tower, and mentions that “cigarette lighters, dash knobs and gear-shift knobs have been removed from most of the cars so people can’t pocket them.” (The current owners are a little less paranoid.)
Things began to change in the 1970s, with increased competition, the oil crunch, and the move to cheaper imports. Ralph Reedman and his three brothers steadfastly refused to sell Japanese cars — because they had lost a fifth brother in the Pacific in World War II. Sales slowly declined to about 15,000 vehicles a year — still more than most American dealerships, but a fraction of Reedman’s heyday. Then Ralph Reedman died, and, like Miss Haversham’s dusty mansion in Dickens’s Great Expectations, time seemed to stop at the showrooms; the velvet wallpaper, in fact, dated back to the ’50s.
But the world didn’t stand still in the past decade — especially not the world of selling automobiles. The Internet was barely in use in ’94, while today some 22 percent of new car sales originate on the Web. That number is growing, as is the number of used car sales. And when Internet-savvy shoppers go to a dealership, they’re in no mood to haggle over price. The biggest advantage of Reedman at its height — that huge lot, with so many cars available that day — is lost with all the consumer choices available online.
The dealership had also lost touch, in some ways, with its customers and its community. Reedman continued to advertise heavily in faraway papers like the Staten Island Advance, even though car buyers are now much more likely to shop close to home. The dealership’s website, begun in the late ’90s, offered the bare minimum, with little opportunity for would-be customers to interact. One insider says the Reedman brothers were also not active in civic affairs — once, a local ambulance company seeking money to buy defibrillators got a $50 check and sent it back, saying, “You must need this more than we do.”
But developer Bruce Toll — self-proclaimed car guy — says he’s going to bring Reedman — make that Reedman-Toll Auto World! — back.
“My first car was a Buick LeSabre. No! My first car was a 1955 Oldsmobile Starfire.” Bruce Toll pauses, and lowers his voice to just above a mumble. “I think it was a Starfire.” He rises up a few decibels as he steers the conversation and regains traction. “My first new car was a Buick LeSabre — when I went away to college at the University of Miami in Coral Gables. It’s the University of Miami — don’t call it Miami University, which is in Ohio.”
Toll is sitting in the big corner office facing Lincoln Highway, with the big desk and the pictures of the wife and kids — none of it his. Indeed, the new owner of Reedman-Toll Auto World is finally sitting down with you on the afternoon of Presidents’ Day because it’s the first day in weeks that he’s come north from the winter home in Palm Beach County that he bought for $4.35 million 10 years ago. He says that when he’s up north, he comes to the dealership two or three times a week.
When the 62-year-old real estate kingpin purchased Reedman, he declared, “I have always had passion for automobiles.” If that’s so, the heat must have been cooled by the piles of winter snow on Lincoln Highway, just outside the window of the roomy office that Toll has borrowed for our interview. He describes last year’s deal as “figuring what percentage I could make at the gross volume — that’s how I arrived at the final price that I paid to Reedman.” When pressed, he concedes, “I’m not a car person.”
Bruce E. Toll is a numbers person — a builder’s son who studied accounting in college and who once said that as a kid he never wanted to be a cowboy or a fireman, but to become a real estate developer. He and his brother Bob — a Penn Law School grad who’s two years older — started a homebuilding business out of a one-room office in Elkins Park in 1967. Their business took off in the 1980s when it went public, and led the trend toward cookie-cutter, fortress-like McMansions that sprouted like so much asparagus across exurbs in Bucks County and elsewhere.
And so today Toll is either a billionaire or close to becoming one. (Even after selling more than $150 million in Toll Bros. stock between 2003 and March of this year, he still owns or holds options on shares valued in April at nearly $600 million — and that doesn’t include any other investments or holdings.) Arguably in the shadow of Bob — still the chairman and CEO of Toll Bros. — Bruce Toll stepped down in 1998 as president and chief operating officer, but is still vice chairman and works at the firm’s Horsham headquarters several days a week.
In the meantime, he has forged a career as a solo deal artist. Today, Bruce owns commercial-property developer BET Investments. In the late 1980s, with zero fanfare, he invested in a car dealership — Roberts Auto Mall in Downingtown — and over the years became the sole owner. And so, in his own words, Reedman-Toll Auto World — this cultural mile marker of post-World War II America that sits on Lincoln Highway, the nation’s first coast-to-coast road — “is another business. I invest in a lot of businesses.”
For those of you who revel in irony, there’s an enormous one in play here. The Toll Bros. real estate fortune would not have been possible without the tens of thousands of Chevys and Chryslers that Ralph Reedman sold in the 1950s and 1960s, the virtual convoy that slowly advanced on the farm fields of Upper Makefield and Upper Uwchlan townships. And now, some of the dollars the Tolls made on suburban sprawl are being recycled to resuscitate Reedman-Toll Auto World.
But a mere suggestion of that irony drew a blank stare from the businessman, who deals in hard currency, not the currency of lofty ideas. What mattered in the end was that Bruce Toll was the only person who had enough interest in the car business as a business, and enough cash, to take the paint-peeling property off Ralph Reedman’s three aging brothers’ hands. It’s simple, really: The Toll brothers sell commodities that create who we are — gigunda I’ve-made-it-big tract houses, and now SUVs — because that’s where the money is.
So Toll and his team have a plan, to the tune of $10 million, which involves taking Reedman into the 21st century while staying true to its unusual roots.
Starting with the look of the place. “Now, these walls over here are going to be able to show commercials and streaming video of the latest models in action,” Bill O’Flanagan, Toll’s son-in-law and a former New York assistant district attorney whom Bruce talked into the car business, says while wandering through the Chevy showroom; workmen have been busy knocking some of those walls out. “All of this design is to make it a theme-park kind of experience, as opposed to before, when you just came here to get a cheap car.”
They still come. On a recent Saturday, dozens of car buyers and would-be buyers milled around the dealership. Some were patiently waiting to drive away with the cars they’d just bought, and most of them have a long history of buying at Reedman.
Judy Jordan of Willow Grove still remembers her first car from Reedman, a 1988 Dodge Shadow. She used to come over to shop at the nearby Oxford Valley Mall, and the first time she saw Reedman, she exclaimed: “Look at all the cars!” She was hooked. “You would just see cars all over the place,” she says. “I mean, everywhere you drive, you see a Reedman [license-plate holder].” On this day, she showed up expecting to buy a Dodge Durango, but instead will drive home in a Chrysler Pacific she snatched up when she noticed that other shoppers coveted it.
Today, Reedman-Toll still sells 15,000 cars and trucks a year. In sales, it is one of the 15 biggest Lincoln Mercury dealerships in the country, and one of the 25 largest Chevy dealers. In size, it remains unmatched; there are about 4,000 new cars and 600 to 800 used cars on the lot at any one time.
Jordan and her husband are sitting in the large waiting area with about 30 other people. There is a festive atmosphere — one man is giving away hot dogs from a cart, while another hands out white bags with hoagies, chips, and cream-filled Tastykake chocolate cupcakes, while World Cup skiing plays on a big-screen TV and several car buyers check their e-mail at computer terminals. Occasionally a shopper hoists himself from a soft, comfy chair and ambles over to check out the bevy of Corvettes parked nearby.
Maybe the TV should be showing Back to the Future, because the fun extras — the hot dogs, the TV sets — were novel ideas when Ralph Reedman thought them up in the 1960s, but faded away as the dealership passed into middle age. That Herald-Tribune article in ’63 marveled at how “ice-cream wagons jingle their bells at you and music is piped over a public address system … ”
Today, a once-dingy room above the Chevy showroom is an airy customer service center, where a crew of 20 deals with hundreds of inquiries that arrive via Reedman-Toll’s flashy website. A big room next door is now a high-tech meeting retreat, where a new Corvette Club gathers every month, and other community events — like an Eagles breakfast sponsored by radio station WYSP — are held.
The upstairs space, in a way, dramatizes the conundrum that Bruce Toll and his team are facing. In 2005, Reedman can’t compete without a strong Internet presence. Today’s big brick-and-mortar showrooms are vying against goliaths like eBay Motors, which now sells a car or truck every 60 seconds and rakes in annual revenues of well over $1 billion.
But, ironically, the cornerstone of the Toll strategy will make a day at Reedman seem not too different from what you saw in 1963 — a bit of a carnival. While there are a score of Internet terminals scattered around the waiting rooms, Toll’s people are also talking about things like a giant carousel in the showroom for family shoppers and their kids. “What’s wrong with nostalgia?” a Toll assistant wonders rhetorically.
Toll may be on to something with that nostalgia — which includes the hands-on experience of car buying. Even as Internet sales rise, buying a car isn’t the same thing as buying a lamp, and keyboard-tied shoppers may start to miss that wonderful aroma of freshly cut leather — or fiddling with the knob on a luggage rack, as I see one anxious dad do while his kids noisily jump around in the backseat of a mini-van.
Preparing to leave Reedman-Toll on that Saturday afternoon, I watch a boy, about 13 or so, climb in the driver’s seat of a long black Corvette, flick on the dashboard lights, and sink into a deep bucket seat, disappearing in the soft gloaming. And as has happened so many times in the past 60 years here, one more American Dream is born.