Griffith Motors celebrates 75 years of business

John Ford

In 75 years of doing business in Neosho, Griffith Motor Company has made some unusual trades.

Owner Jerry Griffith remembers hearing family stories of how his grandfather, Homer Griffith, traded for chickens, livestock and produce shortly after opening his car lot during the Great Depression.

It was common practice then among businesses, doctors, attorneys and the like to accept payment in the form of anything they could get, Griffith said. After all, times were tough and money was hard to come by.

But an elephant?

“Legend has it my grandfather traded for a baby elephant when a carnival came into town,” Griffith said. “This is the legend, at any rate. He traded for a baby elephant with a carnival guy, trading it for a pickup, and staked it out in the lot as a way to attract business.

“The elephant got to be a big mess really quick: Lots of dung, they had to feed it lots of hay. It turned out not to be such a good deal after all.”

According to the legend, Homer Griffith went to the next town where the carnival had set up shop and begged the worker to take the elephant back.

“He had to pay to get him to take the elephant,” Griffith said with a chuckle. “I really don’t know if it’s all true or not. My dad used to tell the story, but you know how some stories get started and through the years, they get embellished.”

While the dealership has long since stopped accepting livestock and, possibly, baby elephants as trade-ins for its cars and trucks, they are doing something rather special this year: Celebrating at least 75 years in business.

To the best of anyone’s knowledge, Griffith said, his grandfather opened his first car lot in about 1933 after first selling used cars out of his home for a few years. The first lot was in a small rock building that still stands on East Spring Street.

Working alongside his father was Billie Griffith — Jerry Griffith’s father — then about 12 or 13.

Five years later, in 1938, Homer Griffith started selling Pontiacs, a move which turned the used car lot into a full-fledged dealership.

But a few years later, the winds of war raged, changing the car and truck business throughout the nation. This is because production of new vehicles for consumers was halted in 1942 so factories could produce jeeps and other vehicles for the military. Auto production would resume in about 1946, after the end of World War II.

“They sold Pontiacs through the war, but times then were tough,” Griffith said. “During the war days, there weren’t any new cars to sell.”

But as the war ended, things improved for Griffith Motor Company, as it acquired a Cadillac franchise in 1948. Shortly thereafter, the dealership built a new building on Neosho Boulevard, the site of the current Family Market.

For the next seven years, Griffith continued selling Pontiacs and Cadillacs. In 1955, it also became a dealer for General Motors.

But it wasn’t all roses over the next few years. Jerry Griffith remembered his dad, Billie, acquiring two unsuccessful franchises: Studebaker / Lark in the late 1950s and a British motorcar company, Triumph, in the 1960s.

“These franchises kind of came and went,” Griffith said.

During that era, Jerry Griffith began working at the lot, like his father before him. Griffith said he remembered doing odd jobs around the lot — washing cars, taking out trash, cleaning up and the like — before getting his big break at the age of 16.

At that time, the 1960s, Billie Griffith started letting his son go to Michigan and buy used cars to take home and put on the lot for sale.

“For some reason, the new car dealerships up there didn’t have an outlet for their trade-ins — there were no used car dealers or auctions. I’d go up, buy two or three used cars, clean them up and put them on the lot and I’d sell them. I’d pay him off the cost of the cars and I got to keep whatever profit there was. It really wasn’t a lot of money, but I thought it was at the time.”

Sometimes he did well, Griffith recalled, but sometimes, he did not, as was the case of a convertible he purchased.

“It was a beautiful looking car,” he remembered, “but when I got it home, it was a piece of junk. I learned a lesson because I lost money on it: Don’t let your heart rule you when it comes to buying a car. I probably learned more during that time than any five hour class in college.”

Griffith hasn’t traveled to Michigan, or anywhere else, to get used cars for the dealership in many years. In fact, he said, 99 percent of the lot’s used car inventory — numbering around 150 cars at any given time — are local trade-ins. Griffith’s also has a like number of new cars on its lot.

In 1969, Jerry Griffith came on board full-time, starting in the parts department. By 1976, he began buying out his father’s share of the company. A few years later, in 1979, the dealership added Buick to the line, and moved to its current location on Harmony Street about this time.

“We were in the old building on the Boulevard about 30 years, and we’ve been here about 30 years,” Griffith said.

In the mid-1980s, Jerry Griffith became president of the company, buying the Chevrolet and Oldsmobile franchise from the Spicer family in the early 1990s.

Over the years, Griffith Motor Company has grown from two employees to 55 full- and part-time workers. They plan on a 75th anniversary celebration sometime this fall. The dealership also plans on expanding its service department, making a larger waiting area.

“We’re going to add some space to it, as it’s getting pretty crowded back there,” he said.

Currently, three generations of Griffiths have owned the dealership, and a member of the fourth generation — Jerry Griffith’s daughter, Jenny Spiva — currently works there as comptroller.

“I grew up in it: It was probably bred into me,” Griffith said. “I’m not a car nut, but I’ve always been interested in cars.”

Griffith said he’s seen a lot of changes through the years, most notably with the fuel economy of cars he sells.

“They talk about the gas guzzlers today, but they’re fuel efficient compared to what they were in the 60s and 70s,” he said.

Case in point: Griffith’s 1967 Pontiac GTO convertible.

“It gets about six miles to a gallon of gas,” he said.

Over the years, Griffith said, he, his dad and grandfather have had a lot of fun. But in the meantime, he also learned something from them.

“Your word is your bond,” he said.

Neosho Daily News