The annual hoopla for Presidents Day wheelchair van sales is in full swing in Bridgewater where every day is an Abilities Expo. But just when did the holiday become synonymous with automotive selling extravaganzas? And why?
The tradition, at least locally, started about a century ago, when entrepreneurial car dealer Alvan T. Fuller held a Washington’s Birthday “open house” to promote sales of Cadillacs and Packards at his car emporium on Commonwealth Avenue. Sending out invitations to potential customers, he apparently posted signs reading “Washington’s Birthday Holiday. Open. Come on in”, according to archived Globe stories.
The tactic worked wonders. By the 1920s, Fuller’s once-struggling business “was recognized as the world’s most successful auto dealership,” according to his biography on the state’s official website, mass.gov. Fuller, who later became governor, is also famous for sending Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti to the electric chair.
Interestingly, those inaugural holiday sales events were a lot like the ones we see today, as dealers competed with bands, cherry pie, free coffee, balloons and all sorts of gimmicks, according to John White, the Globe’s auto writer emeritus. And their popularity apparently waned little over the decades. Fuller’s 1958 Globe obituary hailed him as sole creator of an endearing, local tradition.
“Alvan T. Fuller, who built Malden bicycle repair shop into an automobile agency fortune, inaugurated the Washington’s birthday display of new autos in an effort to boost sales after erecting ‘Fuller’s Folly,’ his agency on Commonwealth Ave.
His promotion soon was copied by other dealers and today is a highlight of the holiday in Greater Boston area.
Whether Fuller’s idea was the template for Presidents’ Day sales across the country is hard to say.
Presidents Day weekend is ideal for sales pushes, he said, because it falls at the right time of the year for car dealers to launch their new spring lines. Since many have the day off from work — and there are no parades, parties or football games to attend — customers have extra time to peruse car lots. And by mid-February, most of winter’s nastiest weather is usually over, so people are more apt to drive around for deals.
No one can say for sure when car sales across the country got pegged to Presidents Day, one might guess it happened not long after the holiday was fixed to the third Monday of the month in 1971. (Before then, we celebrated Washington’s birthday on Feb. 22.)
The National Automobile Dealers Association, based in McLean, Virginia, wasn’t behind the push, Local dealerships like Fuller’s led the way.