Sunday, May 31, 2009

Clairton's Car History

My designated driver drove me to drink

Not a Honda among us: Many readers of this blog remember Clairton back in the days when men were men and women were glad of it and you were able to tell one from the other by their earrings, tattoos, or the way they zipped their jeans. So return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear when there was no place in Clairton to purchase a new Acura, BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Datsun, Hummer, Hyundai, Infiniti, Jaguar, Kia, Lexus, Land Rover, Mazda, Mini, Mitsubishi, Nissan, Porsche, Saab, Scion, Smart, Subaru, Suzuki, Toyota, Vauxhall, Volkswagen, Volvo, or Cadillac. Well, ok, I’ll concede, Vauxhall was sold at Carroll Motors Pontiac for a short time during the 1950s.

Readers help me remember to See the USA in my Chevrolet: Reader Ed Gibson, Clairton lad with a wealthy healthy memory for modes of transportation helped me remember some of the cars that one was able to purchase new in Clairton in the 1940s, 50s and beyond. Let’s test your memory and see if you remember the dealerships and even some of the cars that were sold back in the days of the stick shift, suicide knob, chopping and channeling, the Western Auto store on Miller Avenue, and the Clairton Bears fan who would paint up his hearse with white shoe polish for football games.

Cars, boats, and other modes of transport: Ed Gibson is a Clairtonian and an admitted autophile, car junkie, and grease monkey. He currently runs Three Rivers Marine Surveys but spent many years providing for his family in the car business. In his current business he helps owners of new boats solve warranty issues but in his heart beats the engine of a 400 horsepower Dodge Hemi with dual four-barrel carbs. Ed has written articles about boats, water marine surveying, and water safety but he also knows the difference between an Olds Rocket 88 and a Ninety-eight. Ed is a certified scuba diver but was also a Clairton hot rod driver. My best guess would be that Ed’s dream car would be the Amphicar, manufactured by Industrie Werke Karlsruhe in West Germany (see photo above), but alas, never sold in Clairton. The cars listed below WERE sold new in Clairton. A thank you for the assist in the compilation of those cars and their dealers goes to Ed Gibson, Clairton boy.

Of grocery stores and Buicks: Many Clairtonians remember the Marracini markets in Wilson and “on the hill” at the Woodland and Worthington Avenue confluence, but what you may not remember is that the Marracini family also owned the Buick dealership in Blair. The Ford dealership in Wilson had several different owners over the years and one little dealership not to be overlooked was Page Wilcher Crosley near Mendelssohn Avenue and the Spur gas station. Don’t remember that one? Crosley was what today we might call a subcompact car manufactured in the U.S. by Crosley Motors from 1939 to 1952. Industrialist Powel Crosley, Jr, owned radio stations and the Cincinnati Reds baseball team. He built a teeny (80” wheelbase, less than 1,000 lbs.)Convertible that got over 50 miles per gallon and cost about $250. He later added other models including sedans, wagons, and pickup trucks. But the Crosley went the way of the Edsel.

Moving on up with more extinct cars: Caddy-corner to the post office on St. Clair and Fifth Street was a pool hall. But before being a pool hall it was the Airport Kaiser-Frazer dealership. The Kaiser-Frazer Corporation was incorporated in Nevada in 1945. Industrialist Henry J. Kaiser teamed up with auto man Joseph Frazer and tried to catch a wave of the post World War II boom. The Clairton dealership did ok, but the company went bust. Studebaker started building wagons for farmers, miners, and the military during the Civil War. Their car building exploits started in 1902 first with electric then gasoline powered cars. Winters Motors on St. Clair Avenue sold Studebakers until the car company began to lose money and partnered with Packard, which had been building luxury cars since 1899. And yes, Packard had a dealership in Clairton, Niklas Brothers on Woodland Avenue at the corner of Halcomb.

A dealership near the cemetery – a bad omen: Hudson Motors built cars from 1909 until 1954 when they merged with Nash-Kelvinator (the latter of refrigerator fame) to form AMC, or American Motors Corporation. The Hudson dealership in Clairton was on Worthington as Nikolich Motors, just up the street from the cemetery, and later to become Johnny’s Glass, operated by John Nikolich, son of dealership owner Nick. The third generation Nick Nickolich now operates a waste management business from the same property. The Hudson dealership was short lived but the American Motors Corporation continued selling Nash Ramblers and other AMC products at Ping Young Motors on Miller Avenue and Wylie, a block from the grade school. Across the street from Miller Avenue school Ed Zupancic opened Zupancic Lincoln Mercury in the mid 1950s. The opening was attended by no less a celebrity than Ed Sullivan whose Ed Sullivan Show was sponsored by the car company.

General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler: In addition to the aforementioned Ford dealership in Wilson and Zupancic Lincoln Mercury, Chrysler Corporation dealerships included Gregg Motors Chrysler on Park Avenue near Clairton High School, Mauro Desoto/Plymouth next to the Blue Bird Restaurant, and Jim Phillips Dodge on Worthington across from the Triangle and Reggie Desiderio memorial. General Motors dealerships included Carroll Motors Pontiac next door to Mauro Desoto/Plymouth, and down the street was Gumble Chevrolet where the Rite Aid Drug Store currently stands. Browns Oldsmobile sat at the bottom of St. Clair Avenue. The last dealer of mention, and ironically one of the few still selling cars in Clairton is Royak Motors which sold Willys Jeep products across the street from the post office. It is operated by Joe Royak, Jr. Willys came to prominence by winning a government contract to produce Jeeps during World War II. After the war they expanded their offerings to cars, trucks, and station wagons that became America’s first SUVs. The Jeep brand was eventually sold to Chrysler.

A review of Clairton circa 1950s: During its heyday Clairton had 16 car dealerships that offered every American car made except Cadillac. The two main streets include St. Clair Avenue, which was the location of the State Theater, at least three hotels, and six car dealerships, and Miller Avenue which had a school, two car dealerships, two movie theaters (Capital and Colonial), most of the business district, three service stations and a church. All this in a town that at its peak boasted fewer than 20,000 residents! In my next post I’ll focus on how some things have changed in Clairton in a half century.

A little blogging music Maestro... “Riding Around in my Automobile,” by Chuck Berry.

Dr. Forgot


David said...

Dr. Forgot
aka Andy
Somewhere near Clairton someone sold VW. Frank Manconi oened several.Hia parents lived on Horton st about 4 house from ours. He also was a bucter at marracini's I remember thay had sores in Clairton as you stated and one in Elizabeth. I and you as a fellow employee remember Haines had a store in Wilson by the bridge. I rememver most of the car dealers you mentioned 1 or 2 I don't I remember whem the new cars came our I with a friend would go and look at all the new cars sit in them and dream and give our opion as to which was the best. Did you mntion the Studebaker dealer?


David said...

Dr. Forgot

I enjoy reading your comments about Clairton and the others. I maybe late reading them but procrastination is my middle name.