The year was 1974.
Andy Jones, who was only 11 at the time, clearly remembers when his father, Gerald Jones, purchased a Volkswagen car dealership on Milledgeville Road in south Augusta.
“We had a gravel lot back then,” said Andy Jones, now 55. “It was just rudimentary.
In fact, when we started, we had 12 employees. Now, we have about 320.”
Gerald Jones decided to invest in the south Augusta dealership because he saw great potential in the centralized location, Andy Jones said.
“We started off small, but it was a family. You knew everybody. Not only that, you also knew the names of everybody’s kids,” Andy Jones said. “Because, in this business, you spend more time at work than you do at home with your own family. But it was a lot of fun, and it was a good location for us.”
Back then, south Augusta’s Gordon Highway was always hopping with people looking to purchase a new car, he said.
“Gordon Highway was the Motor Mile. That’s absolutely true,” said Andy Jones, adding that, not long after purchasing the Volkswagen dealership on Milledgeville Road, his father added both Honda and Volvo to that location. “That’s where people went to buy a car. By 1983, we built the Honda store at the corner of Milledgeville Road and Gordon Highway and, in 1986, we bought Subaru. By 1989, we built the big store and combined Subaru, Volkswagen and Volvo, and we added Audi around 1992 or so.”
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Andy Jones saw the dealership grow and thrive in south Augusta.
“I bought a fourth of the dealership when I was 20,” Andy Jones said. “My dad had a partner who passed away from cancer in 1983, so I came on and I bought a fourth of it.
Then, my dad retired 19 years ago, and I bought the rest. But people still come in all the time saying, ‘I bought my first car from your dad on Milledgeville Road.’ I love hearing those stories.”
Gerald Jones Auto Group now proudly has eight auto franchises including
Audi, Ford, Honda, Lincoln, Mazda, Subaru, Volkswagen and Volvo.
However, not one of them is located in south Augusta anymore.
By 2001, Andy Jones announced he was moving his base of operations to Washington and Flowing Wells roads in Columbia County.
While it was a huge blow to Augusta’s “Motor Mile,” Andy Jones said dealerships must move with their customer base.
“Basically, you stay near your demographics. People will ride to purchase a car, but they won’t ride for service. So, through the years, we basically followed our customers so our service department would be more conveniently located near them,” Andy Jones said. “When we bought the dealership back in 1974, I think Columbia County had something like 27,000 people in it. Now, it has 150,000 people or so.”
In fact, during the 1990s, Richmond County had an estimated growth of only about 2 percent, while Columbia County grew by about 35 percent.
“I sold the little store on Milledgeville Road in 1989,” Andy Jones said, adding that he sold the larger dealership property on Gordon Highway to Augusta-based personnel services firm Sizemore Inc., in late 2016.
The 30,000-square-foot former dealership at 2003 Gordon Highway was an ideal location for Sizemore Inc., Andy Jones said.
“It is perfect for them because it’s got lots of parking, it’s a big building and, in the scheme of things, it was inexpensive,” Andy Jones said. “And Gordon Highway is still geographically centrally located.”
Augusta Mayor Hardie Davis publicly applauded Sizemore’s decision to move to south Augusta in 2016. The mayor’s office even issued a joint statement about the move in 2016 along with the company’s president and CEO, Preston Sizemore.
“Sizemore’s investment in the Gordon Highway corridor demonstrates their leadership and foresight as this area begins to experience resurgence and growth,” Davis wrote in the prepared statement.
Preston Sizemore agreed, saying that his company was committed to Augusta-Richmond County.
“We believe that with the Cyber Command coming to Fort Gordon, and the mayor’s commitment to revitalize the area will result in the Gordon Highway corridor becoming a vital part of our community, as well as providing our current employees and those seeking jobs better access to us,” Preston Sizemore said in 2016.
As for the future of south Augusta, Andy Jones thinks businesses like Sizemore’s will be the types of companies that will re-energize the once-popular Motor Mile into something new.
“For that area, I would try to get businesses that are not customer-driven, meaning that the customers don’t come in the door,” Andy Jones said. “Businesses that have their people go out, instead of their customers coming to them, would be perfect because you can quickly get anywhere in west Augusta, south Augusta or downtown from Gordon Highway.”
FAITH IN THE FUTURE OF THE MOTOR MILE
However, local car dealership owner Bob Richards Jr. still has faith in the potential of Augusta’s Motor Mile, even though he no longer has a location on Gordon Highway.
“My dad built the dealership on Gordon Highway in 1972,” Richards said, referring to the former Bob Richards Chevrolet at 2031 Gordon Highway.
“We sold that dealership in 2007, but it is still open today. It has changed hands a couple of times, but it’s now Malcolm Cunningham Chevrolet. And, from what I understand, the traffic counts are still very good on the Motor Mile.”
Specifically, Kia of Augusta, Malcolm Cunningham Chevrolet and Acura of Augusta appear to be going strong, Richards said.
“The dealerships that are located there still do very well,” said Richards, who now owns Bob Richards Automotive Group which includes Nissan of Augusta off Washington Road and three more dealerships in South Carolina. “In fact, our location on Gordon Highway did really, really well for us. Just, at the time in 2007, we had an interested buyer in the property, and it seemed like a good decision for us. But it was a very good dealership.”
After almost 35 years at the Gordon Highway location, Richards sold the dealership to Gordon Stewart in 2007 and it became Gordon Chevrolet.
Before operating the dealership on Gordon Highway, Stewart used to co-own the former Harison-Gulley Chevrolet dealership on Walton Way and 12th Street in the late 1970s.
The Harison-Gulley dealership was purchased by Milton Ruben in January 1982, and it became Milton Ruben Chevrolet.
Eventually, Ruben moved that dealership from Walton Way in 1987 to its current massive superstore at 3514 Washington Road, which sits right on the border of Richmond and Columbia counties.
As for Stewart’s Gordon Chevrolet on Gordon Highway, it became Malcolm Cunningham Chevrolet in 2015.
Malcolm Cunningham, who has been in the business for almost 30 years, owns other dealerships in Georgia including locations in Lilburn and Decatur.
Back in 2015, Cunningham told the Augusta Chronicle that the Augusta market appealed to him because it’s “not oversaturated.”
“I searched high and low trying to find the right opportunity,” Cunningham told the Chronicle in 2015. “The Atlanta market is so competitive. I wanted to find a store that was in a little smaller market.”
Augusta’s Motor Mile was exactly what Cunningham was looking for in Georgia, he said.
To this day, Richards says he still feels connected to Augusta’s Motor Mile.
“We have Bob Richards Toyota and Bob Richards Nissan on the Jefferson Davis Highway in North Augusta,” Richards said. “It is essentially the same road. If you are on Gordon Highway and you just keep on going, it changes into the Aiken-Augusta Highway or the Jefferson Davis Highway, and that’s where you’ll find our dealerships.”
In his mind, Jefferson Davis Highway is actually “South Carolina’s Motor Mile,” Richards said.
“Not only do you have our dealerships, but you also have Satcher Ford and Honda Cars of Aiken and Master Chevrolet Cadillac and others,” Richards said. “So you have a lot of dealerships starting in North Augusta going all the way into Aiken. But, of course, we also have dealerships in other areas such as Bob Richards Chrysler Dodge Jeep RAM in Graniteville, S.C., as well as Nissan of Augusta on Washington Road.”
Right now, Richards said he sees the hot spots for selling cars as both Washington Road and Aiken County.
In fact, Richards has invested a great deal in North Augusta over the past decade, including purchasing some of the former dealerships owned by Ann Taylor, who started the Taylor Auto Group in 1983.
In addition, Richards purchased Sunbelt Nissan in 2016 from Mike Watson, who had been the principal owner of that dealership since 1974.
But while Richards might be investing in other areas of the CSRA right now, he still believes Gordon Highway has a lot of potential.
“I think the expansion of Fort Gordon will really help that region out,” he said. “While, yes, you have more growth in west Augusta and Aiken County now, there is still a lot of commerce that takes place on Gordon Highway and throughout south Augusta. And, once again, the south Augusta location was very good to us over the years.”
BEYOND AUGUSTA’S MOTOR MILE
One of the few dealerships that decided to take a chance at a different location in Augusta other than the Motor Mile was Bobby Jones Ford.
Frank Lawrence, who passed away in 2012, moved to Augusta from Alabama in 1991 and purchased Bobby Jones Ford on Wrightsboro Road, just down from the Augusta Mall.
Frank Lawrence’s son, Bud, remembers moving to Augusta from Birmingham, Ala., a few short months after his father purchased the new Ford dealership.
“I moved here in June of 1991, and I was there until the store was sold in February 2016 to Gerald Jones Auto Group,” Bud Lawrence said. “I have to say, our location was very unique. Typically, car dealers want to be congregated together in clusters, but not us.”
When the Lawrence family moved to Augusta, most of the local dealerships were either on Gordon Highway or Washington Road.
“Or, even prior to that, there were a lot of dealerships downtown,” Bud Lawrence said. “But we were very unique in that we were kind of an island to ourselves. It was unusual. When I first got there, I thought the location was fantastic, and I still do.” With the Ford dealership located next to Bobby Jones Expressway, Bud Lawrence said the location was easily accessible to residents in Augusta, Columbia County and Aiken County.
“We were able to serve the business crowd very well, as well as people who lived in the surrounding communities,” said Bud Lawrence, adding that Bobby Jones Ford-Lincoln became known as the place in Augusta to visit if buyers were looking for a new truck or SUV. “It was a good central location. Now, typically, you don’t see a dealership on its own like that and doing well in our industry. But in our case, it worked out really well.”
As for the future of car dealerships in the Augusta area, Bud Lawrence said there are a lot of exciting new developments in Aiken, Richmond and Columbia counties.
“Certainly Augusta and the CSRA is growing considerably, and anytime you have that, you are going to have shifts in business,” Bud Lawrence said. “Some areas will get longer in the tooth, for whatever reason, and newer areas will offer more promise.”
But older areas also sometimes will enjoy a resurgence as new residents move into the community, he said.
“As far as what’s going on in Augusta, there are a lot of unbelievable things going on in areas that maybe had fallen out of favor, specifically for the car industry,” Bud Lawrence said. “I mean, when you talk about downtown, it is just explosive as far as what’s going on down there. Unfortunately, maybe not so much on Gordon Highway, but I know there is a big push for some changes and some new business opportunities out that way, too.”
While Bud Lawrence thinks car dealerships in Augusta have a great future ahead of themselves, he pointed out that they also have to adapt to the modern needs and wants of their customers.
“Here locally, the dealership owners obviously have a lot of faith in where business is going,” he said. “Just look around. They are building multi-million dollar facilities here. You’ve seen them going up all around town, which is great for Augusta. But there has also been so much change over the years.”
Local car dealerships must operate completely differently than when he first moved to Augusta about 25 years ago, Bud Lawrence said.
“Literally, today, you can buy a brand new, or even a used car, and never set foot inside a car dealership,” Bud Lawrence said. “And I think that trend is going to continue.
The dealers are going to have to follow the direction the customers are demanding, and if that’s what they want, then they’ll have to adapt. That’s a big change. And, I can tell you, adapting to some of these new ways of doing business is a challenge. It’s a big challenge.”
But car dealers are up to the challenge because they have an internal drive like no other and a real passion for selling cars, Bud Lawrence said.
“I remember the first new vehicle I ever sold,” Bud Lawrence said, laughing. “I was working in Gadsden, Ala. I was still in college, but I was home on break, and I sold a new Pontiac Sunbird. I believe it was in 1984.”
While he had sold other used cars as a teenager, Bud Lawrence said he’ll never forget that sale.
“I can still picture the couple in my mind,” he said, chuckling. “I used to even be able to tell you their names for many, many years. I remember that one sale distinctly. It meant a lot.”
Sitting in his dealership’s office, Andy Jones of Gerald Jones Auto Group agreed that he still enjoys seeing the excitement on people’s faces when they buy a new car.
“My dad always told me, ‘Be on the floor, where you are visible,’ so that’s where you’ll find me,” Andy Jones said. “I love people. I have a nice office, but I’m never up here. I would much rather be talking to a customer, whether it is in sales or service or even if they have an issue, I’d rather be in front of the customer myself.”
In fact, Andy Jones’ business card lists both his home and cellphone numbers.
“I want people to be able to reach me, because a car is usually their second biggest purchase behind their house, and I think they get at least
as excited about a car. A lot of people get more excited,” Andy Jones said, laughing. “Let’s face it, a lot of people don’t know where you live, but they know what you drive.”
Whether someone is purchasing a car online or in the dealership, Andy Jones said good customer service never goes out of style.
“Customers don’t buy from people they don’t like,” Andy Jones said. “If you are nice to them and provide them good customer service, they’ll come back.”