At Joseph’s Garage, they sold Pontiacs the old-fashioned way for 69 years. And they still do. The brand has been gone since 2010, but the blue Pontiac sign still hangs above the familiar shop in Norwell, Massachusetts, and a handful of Bonnevilles, Torrents, and the odd Aztek can often be found on the lot.
Opened in 1928 by Herb Joseph, the neighborhood gas station and car dealership built a loyal following by focusing on service, remembering customers’ names and preferences, and knowing just the right time to suggest a new Pontiac. Herb’s two sons, Art and Philip, didn’t mess with the formula, or much of anything else. Art’s sons, John, 56, and Art, 58, are the third generation of Josephs to run the place.
The simple one-story brick building is located in the center of what passes for downtown in a quiet community of historic homes about a half hour south of Boston. It looks much the same as it has for decades. The left side is occupied by a small reception area and three service bays, and there’s a two-car showroom encased in large glass windows on the right. Three full-service gas pumps in Gulf livery are still there, too, despite the efforts of General Motors.
“The GM area reps hated the gas pumps,” Art says. They told us we had to update, that pumps were not in keeping with the image of a ‘modern dealership.’ ” But the pumps kept customers coming back regularly for a tank of gas, sparking conversations and building relationships that proved a major part of Joseph’s new-car sales success. The logic was simple, according to Art: “Why should I pay for advertising to get customers in the door, when I get them coming in twice a week for free? Eventually, we would just tap them on the shoulder and say, ‘It’s time.’ ”
Art and John learned the family business by growing up in Joseph’s Garage in the 1960s and ’70s. They cleaned cars, pumped gas, and took part in the annual ritual of redecorating the showroom every September on the eve of new-car introduction day. “It was exciting,” Art says. “We got to stay up late, and we’d cover the windows with paper. We’d hang up the new posters and roll the new models in after dark.” Art sold his first car at age 13—a 1973 Grand Am coupe—to one of his gasoline customers. “After that, I had to buy my first leisure suit.”
After a break to earn business and marketing degrees at Babson College in nearby Wellesley, the brothers returned to Norwell. But their degrees didn’t mean they came home with big plans for change. As other area dealerships took on more brands, expanded into ever glitzier showrooms, and piled on debt, the Josephs stayed small and remained competitive using other strategies.
“I’d order my cars with features the others did not,” says Art, believing that strategically chosen options gave his cars extra showroom appeal and added value. Including an FM radio and upgraded wheels was an inexpensive way to make their cars a little different from what customers found elsewhere. Another trick was to stock Firebirds with minimal options when other dealerships piled them on, to keep the price low for younger buyers. Art wasn’t afraid to stock a stripped-down LeMans with a six-cylinder engine and three on the tree for frugal customers. On the other hand, Art was also an early adopter of air conditioning, when other dealers were slow to add the expensive option. He always made sure the sticker price came in just under a big number, like $3900 instead of $4200, or $4900 instead of $5150. This was in the days before bundled options packages and fixed trim levels, another part of modern-day car selling that leaves Art shaking his head.
More than anything else, the big key to their success was knowing their customers, and they’d often order a car with a particular buyer in mind. A card file of customers with detailed notes, combined with regular visits at the pump, helped them know when the time was right. Then it was a simple matter of choosing the right model, color, and options. “Knowing that Liberty Mutual paid bonuses in February meant it was time to call the Browns,” Art says. “We figured out what they needed and what would be a fair price.”
Printing a stack of customer repair invoices on a Saturday in the cluttered office where he once closed deals, Art gets a gleam in his eye telling stories, and he seems like a man who is far from selling his last Pontiac. Maybe that’s because he hasn’t. Old habits die hard.
Joseph’s did brisk business in used Pontiacs for years, but these car sales are only a small part of their focus. The showroom sits empty, save for a collection of promotional models, period posters on the walls, and a vintage satellite-radio display. Photos of the Josephs and the dealership over the years trace the history of a family business, and the quiet showroom now serves as something of a mini museum.
The action has shifted to the other side of the building, as Joseph’s has evolved into a thriving neighborhood shop performing general repair and maintenance on a variety of cars. Although the showroom remains largely frozen in time, the garage bays are stocked with the latest tools and diagnostic equipment needed to service modern vehicles. “It’s not like you’re going to use your grandfather’s Crescent wrench,” says Art.
After more than 90 years in business, it’s unclear whether another generation of Josephs will take over for the brothers. John has no kids, and Art says his two daughters aren’t interested. “But there are three nephews, so there’s always hope,” he says.
In the meantime, customers keep coming back, thanks to a longstanding reputation for quality work, personal attention, and great conversation at those full-service pumps. Stop in for a tank. Maybe you’ll leave with an Aztek.