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Behind the Presidents' Day car sales push

Posted by Clifford Atiyeh  February 11, 2010 04:01 PM

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Luis Dacova checks out new Volkswagens at Quirk Volkswagen on Presidents' Day last year. (David Kamerman/Globe Staff)

The annual hoopla for Presidents' Day car sales is in full swing. But just when did the holiday become synonymous with automotive selling extravaganzas? And why?

The tradition, at least locally, started about a century ago, when entrepreneurial car dealer Alvan T. Fuller held a Washington's Birthday "open house" to promote sales of Cadillacs and Packards at his car emporium on Commonwealth Avenue. Sending out invitations to potential customers, he apparently posted signs reading "Washington's Birthday Holiday. Open. Come on in", according to archived Globe stories.

The tactic worked wonders. By the 1920s, Fuller's once-struggling business "was recognized as the world's most successful auto dealership," according to his biography on the state's official website, mass.gov. Fuller, who later became governor, is also famous for sending Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti to the electric chair.

Interestingly, those inaugural holiday sales events were a lot like the ones we see today, as dealers competed with bands, cherry pie, free coffee, balloons and all sorts of gimmicks, according to John White, the Globe's auto writer emeritus. And their popularity apparently waned little over the decades. Fuller's 1958 Globe obituary hailed him as sole creator of an endearing, local tradition.

"Alvan T. Fuller, who parlayed a [Malden] bicycle repair shop into an automobile agency fortune, inaugurated the Washington's birthday display of new autos in an effort to boost sales after erecting 'Fuller's Folly,' his agency on Commonwealth Ave.," reads the May 1 obituary. "His promotion soon was copied by other dealers and today is a highlight of the holiday in Greater Boston."

Whether Fuller's idea was the template for Presidents' Day sales across the country is hard to say. Paul Taylor, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association, founded in 1917, said he didn't know anything about Fuller.
Taylor also said that the impetus for Presidents' Day car sales has little to do with patriotism or "buying American."

"There are genuine economic reasons why the holiday period has become a strong car selling-season. It's not symbolism, in particular, even though you'll see George Washington's profile in a lot of ads," he said.

Presidents Day weekend is ideal for sales pushes, he said, because it falls at the right time of the year for car dealers to launch their new spring lines. Since many have the day off from work — and there are no parades, parties or football games to attend — customers have extra time to peruse car lots. And by mid-February, most of winter's nastiest weather is usually over, so people are more apt to drive around for deals.

"We think that any holiday weekend is a great weekend to go out and buy a new car. It's the luxury of time for the consumer that's important," Taylor said.

Taylor couldn't say when car sales across the country got pegged to Presidents Day, but he gathered it happened not long after the holiday was fixed to the third Monday of the month in 1971. (Before then, we celebrated Washington's birthday on Feb. 22.) Imports changed the market soon after that, so patriotic themes were probably fairly appealing to dealers of domestic-made cars.

The National Automobile Dealers Association, based in McLean, Virginia, wasn't behind the push, Taylor said. Local dealerships like Fuller's led the way.

Still, red, white and blue balloons, salesmen dressed in colonial garb and whatever other gimmicks dealers use to hype the day probably don't hurt, Taylor said. He just couldn't understand why Massachusetts dealers would plaster Washington's face on their ads.

"As you know, George Washington was a Virginian," he said. "Since it's Presidents Day, I would expect Massachusetts would use the likenesses of both John Adams and John Quincy Adams."

He's got a point.

Peter DeMarco writes the Globe's "Who taught YOU to drive?" column. He can be reached at demarco@globe.com.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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