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Old Posted Jan 21, 2011, 8:43 PM
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Downtown West Georgia Street was once auto dealership row

From the Sun today -
- so when you look at auto dealers on No. 3 Rd or elsewhere on a main strip, that can certainly change...

Downtown West Georgia Street was once auto dealership row
What is now a line of highrise condominiums and ofice towers was once the location of most of the major auto dealers in Vancouver

By Alyn Edwards, Vancouver Sun
January 21, 2011

It's hard to believe as you travel along Vancouver's West Georgia Street lined with office towers and highrise condominium buildings that this was where Vancouverites once came to buy their cars.

At one point in the early days of the auto-the automobile, more than a dozen dealerships were located on the city's main downtown central east west corridor. Car sales companies on Georgia Street date back to 1906 with the Western Automobile & Real Estate Company located at Granville Street where the Pacific Centre Mall and tower is today.

The epicentre for automotive sales activity became the intersection of Geor-Georgia and Burrard Streets with Bow-ell-McLean selling Cadillacs, Empire Motors selling Ford products and Oxford Motors selling British cars right next to Christ Church Cathedral. A.W. Carter Motors had the Hudson franchise at 845 Burrard where the Sutton Place Hotel is today.

One of the first dealerships to locate

on Georgia Street west of Burrard was the McLaughlin Carriage Company selling McLaughlin cars manufactured in Ontario and rail shipped right to downtown Vancouver. Pierce Arrow of Canada would later sell its luxury cars from this location.

Dominion Motors was alongside selling Fords first and then representing forgotten makes including Moon, Paige and Jewett automobiles.

Bowell MacDonald Motor Company started nearby selling Oldsmobile and Oakland cars. The dealership would later move several blocks to Burrard Street as Bowell-McLean.

In the same block on the north side between Bute and Jervis Streets, Consolidated Motors began selling Packard and Hupmobile cars and White trucks alongside Walmsley Motors selling British Cars. A modern condo building called Venus occupies the prime site today.

Who remembers Willis Kingsley Motors on the southeast corner of Georgia and Bute Streets? This company sold Pierce Arrow motor cars in the 1920s and 1930s until the Depression ended production of these luxury cars. Then the dealership began selling Willys cars and trucks and finally Studebaker products.

In 1912, Begg Brothers had moved their dealership from Seymour Street across from the Bay department store to a new building on the south side of Georgia Street just east of Burrard where the Grosvenor Office Tower is today. Begg Motors began selling Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Cadillac, Hudson, Chalmers and Dodge Bros. cars along with Republic and National trucks. The company later extended its buildings on the back of the property through to Thurlow Street ending up as a full line Chrysler dealership also selling Fargo trucks.

Across the street on property now occupied by the Royal Centre Mall and tower, Nash Motor Sales began selling cars and trucks bearing that name.

At the east end of Georgia near today's entrance to the viaduct, Stonehouse Motors was selling Ford products and Day-Smith Motors was selling Studebaker cars and trucks. Collier Motors sold Chevrolet and Oldsmobile cars right through the 1950s on Georgia Street at Homer kitty corner to the main Vancouver post office.

Docksteader Volvo had a dealership on the southeast corner of Georgia and Thurlow Streets where the 1090 West Georgia office tower is today.

One of the last of the great Georgia Street dealerships was operated by wartime Ford of Canada vice-president Clarke Simpkins. He opened his dealership in 1946 to take advantage of a four-year wartime production hiatus that created a frantic demand for vehicles. The first location was in the 1200 block of West Georgia Street where the buildings that housed some of the city's earliest dealerships still stood.

Understandably, Clarke Simpkins sold Ford products including Meteor, Mercury and Lincoln cars along with Mercury trucks. In 1953, Clarke Simpkins opened a new ultra modern dealership in the next block at 1345 West Georgia. This featured a showroom facing the thoroughfare, the most up-to-date service department in the city and beautiful offices looking down on the cars for sale.

As the eldest son of the owner, Michael Simpkins remembers helping out in the parts department and washing cars in his early years before becoming a car jockey at the age of 16. One of his duties was to take customer cars through the City of Vancouver motor vehicle testing station across the street.

Clarke Simpkins was a brilliant business strategist and he seized the opportunity to sell small, fuel-efficient British Fords to motorists seeking more economical transportation.

That was so successful that Clarke Simpkins became the largest volume English Ford dealer in North America. That didn't make Ford of Canada very happy because their cars weren't moving.

Ford fought back in 1958 by setting up Zephyr Motors to sell their English cars and Clarke Simpkins responded by dropping the Ford franchise. Soon, Clarke Simpkins Motors on Georgia Street was displaying a wide range of cars from small imports to racy Ferraris.

Michael Simpkins recalls that the dealership stored 300 to 400 vehicles on vacant property now occupied by one of Vancouver's best known hotels -the Bayshore Inn.

The company became the first Fiat dealer in Canada and soon added Rolls-Royce, Triumph, Rover, Borgward and of course Ferrari. "My father signed up for every car franchise that was available," Michael Simpkins recalls. "That's how he stayed in business.

By the late 1960s, real estate prices were skyrocketing as office towers being built were spreading west down Georgia Street from the city centre. Clarke Simpkins sold out to the New York Rockefeller Group and moved his dealership -- across the bridge to Burrard Street and 8th Avenue. The entrepreneurial auto retailer subsequently became the first Honda dealer in Canada.

So the era of the colourful car dealerships that once dominated West Georgia Street came to an end only to start another auto row on uptown Burrard Street.

Clarke Simpkins was the last of those pioneer dealers when he passed away in 1999 at the age of 94.

Alyn Edwards is a classic car enthusiast and partner in Peak Communicators, a Vancouverbased public relations company. aedwards@peakco.com

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