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How Malden entrepreneur (may have) launched Presidents’ Day car sales

Alvan T. Fuller (front, right) is often credited with starting the Washington’s Birthday tradition of car sales. Alvan T. Fuller (front, right) is often credited with starting the Washington’s Birthday tradition of car sales. (WALTER T. BERRY/GLOBE staff photo/FILE 1910)
By Peter DeMarco
Globe Correspondent / February 16, 2012
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The annual hoopla for Presidents’ Day car sales will soon be in full swing. But when did the holiday become synonymous with auto-selling extravaganzas?

The idea, according to many, was the brainchild of Alvan T. Fuller, who was born in Charlestown and grew up in Malden. Fuller is perhaps best remembered for his tenure as Massachusetts’ 52d governor, when he refused to pardon anarchists Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti before they were put to death for murder in 1927. But long before his career in politics, Fuller was just an enterprising teenager selling bicycles out of a backyard barn on Cross Street in Malden.

As early as 1897, he was hyping Washington’s Birthday as a great time to buy bikes, hanging a sign outside his shop that read, “COME ON IN . . . IT’S OPEN HOUSE,’’ according to a Boston Globe story printed in 1964. When he transitioned to selling cars a few years later, Fuller again used Washington’s Birthday (the holiday wasn’t called Presidents’ Day until 1971) as a sales hook.

“He said to himself, ‘Geez, if it worked in the bicycle business it’s got to work in the car business,’ ’’ said Fuller’s grandson, Peter Fuller Jr., who followed both his grandfather and father, Peter, into auto sales.

Alvan Fuller’s 1958 obituary in the Globe gives him sole credit for having “inaugurated the Washington’s Birthday display of new autos.’’ Contemporary news stories often echo that sentiment, but delve deeper into history and such claims appear a bit embellished. While it’s true that Fuller held bicycle sales on Washington’s Birthday in the late 1890s, so did other bike shops around that time, wrote Globe reporter James T. Sullivan in a 1916 article. Like Fuller, some of those bike shop owners also became car salesmen at the turn of the 20th century and hosted open houses on the holiday.

But even if Fuller didn’t begin Presidents’ Day sales, he alone popularized the idea, Sullivan wrote. Fuller’s elaborate holiday sales were leagues above his competitors’: they included live orchestras, decorations, and personal invitations to peruse his Boston showrooms. He stayed open later than any other dealership in the city and offered innovative deals that other car sellers couldn’t imagine.

“He did a lot of things that were ahead of his time,’’ said Peter Fuller Jr., who runs a small car rental agency and used car dealership in Watertown. “He allowed customers to make payments for cars instead of asking them for all the money up front. Obviously, that’s the way everyone finances cars today, but he was one of the first to do that.’’

Risk-taking was indeed Alvan Fuller’s forte. In 1899, he traveled to France to buy a pair of cars, becoming the first to import foreign models to Boston, according to Globe archives.

In 1910, he moved his Packard and Cadillac dealerships from Park Square to a new, $300,000 automotive palace at the intersection of Commonwealth and Brighton avenues, opening it - appropriately - on Washington’s Birthday.

The location was dubbed “Fuller’s Folly’’ because it was built near swamp land and considered so far from downtown Boston that no one would shop there. Instead, Fuller sold so many cars that other dealers scrambled to open near him, earning Commonwealth Avenue the moniker “Automobile Row.’’

Fuller’s extraordinary success - by the 1920s his business “was recognized as the world’s most successful auto dealership,’’ according to his biography on the state’s official website, - helped cement his reputation as the patriarch of local Presidents’ Day sales. By the 1930s, Fuller’s spread included rich tapestries and Rembrandt paintings on showroom walls, couples dancing gracefully on marble floors to the music of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, afternoon tea settings, and complimentary “headier’’ beverages.

“The atmosphere was unique and revolutionary from the point of view of merchandising automobiles,’’ wrote his son, Peter Fuller, in a family history.

Paul Taylor, chief economist and spokesman for the near-century-old National Automobile Dealers Association, said he hadn’t heard of Fuller. Nor could Taylor say when car sales got pegged to Washington’s Birthday nationally, though he supposed it happened not long after the holiday was fixed to the third Monday of the month in 1971.

Imports changed the market around that time, so patriotic themes probably appealed to dealers of domestic-made cars, Taylor said. Presidents’ Day weekend is also ideal for sales pushes because it coincides with the debut of new spring models. Since many customers have the Monday off from work - and there are no parades, parties, or football games to attend - they have time to peruse car lots.

“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.

With so many foreign automakers manufacturing cars in the US now, today’s holiday sales often focus on cost savings instead of patriotic themes. Still, red, white, and blue balloons probably don’t hurt, Taylor said.

But Taylor just doesn’t understand why a Massachusetts car dealer would plaster Washington’s face across 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 can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @ whotaughtU2driv.

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