History and Heritage

Automotive News -- January 27, 1997 - 12:01 am ET

The roots for the Tenvoorde dynasty were planted when John Tenvoorde led a group of German Dutch settlers from Pennsylvania to Indiana and, then, to St. Cloud, Minn. A merchant, Tenvoorde was one of the founders of St. Cloud.

His son, Steve Tenvoorde, and his buddy, P.R. Thielman, nicknamed 'The Daredevils,' accomplished the feat of driving a Milwaukee Steamer 70 miles over a rough oxen trail from Minneapolis to St. Cloud to bring the first automobile to their home town in 1899.


An inventive blacksmith and bicycle shop owner, Steve Tenvoorde was hooked on this new invention. In 1901, he began selling cars from his bicycle shop in downtown St. Cloud. He signed the second Ford franchise on March 21, 1903, before Ford Motor Co. was incorporated that June.

William Hughson, founder of Hughson Ford Sales in San Francisco, signed the first Ford franchise only a month earlier, in February 1903. That business no longer is operated by the family.

Steve Tenvoorde also was the St. Cloud dealer for Oldsmobile, Saxon, Buick, Chandler, Oakland and others. He eventually dropped all other lines and concentrated on Ford.

The Tenvoorde name has been associated with autos in St. Cloud since 1901. It was a beginning without an ending in sight in 1997.

'My grandfather (Steve Tenvoorde) ... was also a part-time inventor,' said Jack Tenvoorde, the current president and third-generation owner of Tenvoorde Motor Co. 'He went into the bicycle business in the 1890s. He used his blacksmith skills to invent several things, including a jack-like lever on wheels he patented as the Tenvoorde Jack to pull cars around. He was a handyman-type of person, a hunter and fisherman, but not that much of a businessman.'


Indeed, the automobile proved a tough sell in that first year as a Ford franchisee. Steve Tenvoorde sold only a single Ford car that year. Today, the Tenvoorde dealership typically sells 350 new and used retail vehicles per month, said Jack Tenvoorde.

Steve Tenvoorde viewed the automobile and driving as an adventure. One of the many newspaper clippings Jack Tenvoorde has from his grandfather Steve's day describes the first 'Sociability Run,' made in 1912, when 21 cars drove from one town to another for a three-day adventure. Steve Tenvoorde led the way in his Ford. With his love for bicycle racing and inventive skills, he designed a way for the St. Cloud Band members to carry their instruments on their bicycles and accompany the motorists.

Each driver in the caravan was given rules to follow over the rough roads. The speed limit was set at an average of 15 mph with no car to run any faster than 25 mph at any given time. Even if they could have driven faster, there were problems to deal with that would have slowed them down, mostly tire punctures, wet carburetors and getting stuck in the mud.

The cars they drove are a far cry from the four-wheel-drive sport-utilities, like the go-anywhere Ford Expedition, that Steve Tenvoorde's grandson Jack drives today. Likewise, price tags were drastically different. Jack Tenvoorde says the dealership still has on record invoices for $650 and less.

In addition to changes in vehicles and price hikes, the evolution of the industry and the Tenvoorde family business is evident through old photographs that Jack Tenvoorde has. The dealership itself has changed dramatically.

Seven years after receiving the first shipment of Model A Fords, Steve Tenvoorde erected his first sales outlet, a one-story brick building in downtown St. Cloud. In 1916, he remodeled and added a two-story addition to include a five-car showroom and service area on the lower level and a combination engine-component and body repair shop upstairs.

His son and Jack Tenvoorde's father, Cy Tenvoorde, started working at the dealership when he was 12 and became an official member of the company when he kept the company's books in June 1921.

'My father went through eighth grade and two years of business college,' recalls Jack, the oldest son. 'He pulled the dealership through the Depression as a teenager. When he came home after 18 hours of work, he would break down in tears.'


Cy Tenvoorde and his two brothers became the second generation to take ownership of the dealership when Steve Tenvoorde died in 1943. It was not an opportune time. The dealership, like those across the nation, had no new cars to sell because factories were converted to producing military equipment like planes and tanks for World War II.

Cy Tenvoorde was forced to lay off all of his salesmen, except one. The dealership concentrated on repairing carburetors, fuel pumps, generators, ignitions, distributors, transmissions, crankshafts and re-building engines. Used cars were repaired and put on sale. It sold service by encouraging people, through advertising, to keep their cars in good repair. The purchase of a crankshaft grinder that cost a shocking $8,000 at the time eventually paid for itself through repairs.

Against all odds, business grew. The company reached the point where it was rebuilding an average of 125 engines a month for retail customers and several competitive dealerships.

'Dad made more at that business than he did selling cars,' said Jack Tenvoorde. 'When the war was over, Ford put in its own official factory machine to rebuild engines, and put him out of that business.'


Still, the business flourished. The dealership built a larger facility on a 3/4-quarter-acre lot in downtown St. Cloud in 1951. 'My dad paid cash for it,' recalled Jack Tenvoorde. 'He didn't believe in credit.'

Jack Tenvoorde laughed describing his uncle, who was his dad's brother and partner at that time. 'He didn't like trucks. Can you imagine? They would only stock one or two at a time. When they sold a truck, my uncle would complain, 'Damn it, now we've got to order another one.' Today trucks are the major part of new-vehicle business. The Explorer and the Expedition are our big sellers.'

A transition in ownership occurred in 1966, and the dealership nearly fell into the hands of non-family members. 'Dad had two brothers and a sister with stock in the company. They wanted to sell out. My dad bought out his brothers and sisters and became the principal owner. That's why we are here today. God willing, we will have as smooth a transition to the next generation.'


Jack Tenvoorde recalls, with pride, that his father was asked to drive the 4 millionth Minnesota-built Ford out of the Twin Cities plant in St. Paul on April 14, 1976. The plant now makes Ford Rangers, but at that time it built the LTD, which then carried a sticker of $6,455.

'Dad drove a bronze LTD off the assembly line in honor of the occasion,' recalled Jack Tenvoorde.

Trouble for the dealership came again in 1977 when it spewed red ink month-after-month; the dealership had not experienced an unprofitable year since Cy Tenvoorde had acquired it. Still, sales kept growing, and another expansion was in the works. On June 16, 1977, ground was broken for a new facility on 10 acres of farmland Cy Tenvoorde had plowed at age 12, to demonstrate the versatility of Ford tractors sold at the dealership.

Cy Tenvoorde was reluctant to expand, as it would require using credit, which he didn't believe in. 'Dad told us, 'I ain't signing nothing. You sign the mortgage on this one',' Jack Tenvoorde recalled. 'But life doesn't operate that way anymore. It was a good signing. We had 30 employees in 1977; now we have 110.'

The new dealership opened on St. Patrick's Day 1978, the year Ford Motor Co. and Tenvoorde Motor Co. celebrated their 75th anniversaries With the state's governor and senators along with St. Cloud's mayor on hand for the event, the groundbreaking captured headlines in national newspapers and Automotive News. The dealership must have been blessed that day; it was one of the few winter days it didn't snow in St. Cloud, recalled Jack Tenvoorde.


Since that day, the dealership, which includes one building with 45,000 square feet of floor space on 10 acres, has been remodeled four times to stay fresh with the times.

Active in the dealership daily until 1992, Cy Tenvoorde died in 1995, two days shy of his 90th birthday. Today, the dealership is operated by Jack Tenvoorde and his two younger brothers, Paul and Dave, who have worked together in the dealership for 35 years. Three of Jack's four children are in the business, and are making their mark.

Tenvoorde's daughter, Debbie, is kicking off the fourth generation as the customer service manager. 'Last year we were in last place in the Twin City region in customer service, the same place we've been for six years since the CSI came out. We gave her the job and one year later, we moved to third place in the region. We have won the North American Customer Excellence award,' said Jack Tenvoorde. 'We attribute our dealership's longevity to customer service.'

Jack Tenvoorde sees repeat customers who come back for good service as being the foundation for the future. 'Our success is based on the way we treat our customers. We give them respect. We recognize that without them we have no business.'


Son Michael has been a salesman at the dealership for the past two years since finishing college. He was the dealership's fourth top salesperson last year. He recently attended the National Automobile Dealers Association Academy in McLean, Va.

Trailing behind in the Tenvoorde lineage is the youngest son, Brian, who is still in school and works part-time in the dealership's prep center.

It will be this fourth generation of Tenvoordes who eventually take over the dealership. 'Our family has been here since its beginning and expects to be for many years to come,' Jack Tenvoorde said.

Tenvoorde looks forward to the dealership's 100th anniversary in six years, to yet another expansion of the dealership facility, and to passing the torch onto the next generation.

'And,' Jack Tenvoorde said, 'I hope there are more generations of Tenvoorde owners to come.'


Automotive News -- January 27, 1997 - 12:01 am ET
February 1903: William Hughson, founder of Hughson Ford Sales in San Francisco, signed the first Ford franchise agreement.

March 1903: Steve Tenvoorde of St. Cloud, Minn., signed the second Ford agreement and started selling automobiles out of his bicycle shop.

June 16, 1903: Ford Motor Co. incorporated and converted a Detroit wagon factory staffed with 10 people. In its first 15 months, 1,700 Model A cars were manufactured.

1910: Tenvoorde erected his first sales outlet in the one-story brick building on the corner of 5th Avenue and 2nd Street in downtown St. Cloud next door to the bicycle shop where he started.

1915: Tenvoorde dropped his other car lines and became an exclusive Ford dealership.

1916: Tenvoorde enlarged the dealership to include a second-story addition, a five-car showroom and service area on the lower level with a combination engine-component and body repair shop upstairs.

1921: Cy Tenvoorde began his official career in the automobile business as the company's bookkeeper, though he began working at the dealership at age 12.

1927: Tenvoorde Motor Co. was incorporated with Steve Tenvoorde as president and his sons, Lloyd, Cy and Walter as vice president, secretary and treasurer, respectively.

1942: When civilian car production stopped, Tenvoorde Motor Co. promoted its repair and service department.

1943: Founder Steve Tenvoorde died.

1951: Cy Tenvoorde built a new dealership on a 3/4-quarter-acre lot in downtown St. Cloud and paid cash.

1966: Cy Tenvoorde purchased outstanding stock from his brothers and sister to become the principal of the dealership. He had three sons in the business - Jack, David and Paul.

April 1976: Cy Tenvoorde drove Ford's 4 millionth car, a bronze-colored LTD, off the assembly line at the St. Paul Ford plant.

June 16, 1977: Cy Tenvoorde broke ground at 185 Roosevelt Rd. for a new facility.

March 17, 1978: The new facility opened on 10 acres in St. Cloud in time for Tenvoorde Motor Co.'s and Ford Motor Co.'s 75th a nniversaries.

September 1995: Cy died two days before his 90th birthday. He went to work every day up to two years before his death.

1997: Tenvoorde Motor Co. is the world's oldest family-held Ford franchise. Now owned and operated by the third-generation of Tenvoordes, the business plans another expansion, and three members of the family's fourth generation are employed by the dealership.


Oldest dealership is older than Ford Motor

Both are 100, but Tenvoorde was first

Automotive News -- June 16, 2003 - 12:01 am ET
Throughout its 100 years, Tenvoorde Motor Co., the oldest family-owned Ford dealership, has risen and fallen with the tides of the auto industry. But that is just part of automotive retailing for the St. Cloud, Minn., dealership, which was established on March 21, 1903, three months before Ford Motor Co. was incorporated.

"Being in business that long, we've learned to roll with the tide," says Jack Tenvoorde, grandson of the dealership's founder. "Our philosophy is that personnel will come and go, the economy will rise and fall, but we've been here 100 years and will continue to be here."

In this era of consolidation and publicly owned dealerships, Tenvoorde Motor Co. remains a family-owned and operated store. Jack Tenvoorde owns it with his brothers, Paul and David.

Jack Tenvoorde recently turned the day-to-day operations over to his son, Mike. Another son and a daughter also work in the dealership, as does one of his grandchildren. The fifth-generation Tenvoorde is a newcomer, starting as all family members did: washing cars.

"It's in our blood," Jack Tenvoorde says. "We all started by washing cars and worked our way up. There's no silver spoon in this family."

Economy and product

Jack Tenvoorde, who started working in the dealership more than 40 years ago when it was owned by his father, Cy Tenvoorde, said the economy and product are two crucial factors for dealerships.

That combination almost did the dealership in during World War II, as it did many dealerships.

Cy Tenvoorde, who nursed the dealership through the Depression when he was a teenager, took over in 1943 when his father, founder Steve Tenvoorde, died. He had no new cars to sell because of the war. He laid off all but one salesman and concentrated on car repair including preparing used cars for sale. Against the odds, the dealership grew.

Another of the company's difficult years was 1977. The United States had been rocked by an oil crisis. That led to an economic downturn as well as an onslaught of small, fuel-efficient cars - something Ford didn't have - from overseas. The dealership spewed red ink throughout 1977, after being profitable since the 1940s.

The current economic climate and the war with Iraq have been a challenge. Tenvoorde Motor is selling about 600 fewer vehicles a year than it did at Ford's peak in the late 1990s. In 2002, sales totaled 3,600 new and used vehicles.

But Jack Tenvoorde is optimistic.

At left: From left to right, Paul, Jack and David Tenvoorde. At right: Steve and Rose Tenvoorde in 1912.

"The level of enthusiasm at our spring dealer meeting in Orlando was as high as I've ever seen," he says. "The mood of the dealers is very positive, especially because of the upcoming product. Dealers are at the mercy of the product - and the quality of the product. We have promising products coming, and the quality is picking up."

Another key factor for dealers is relations with the factory.

At Ford, dealer relations reached a low point in the late 1990s. Ford implemented a plan to buy and operate dealerships and instituted dealer standards under its Blue Oval program. The factory purchase of dealerships has ended, and current Ford management has been improving relations with dealers.

A different world

The dealership - and the automotive retailing world - has changed dramatically since Henry Ford established Ford Motor and the Tenvoorde family opened its dealership in 1903.

General Manager Mike Tenvoorde, 32, oversees a large and complicated business.

Mike spends most of his time recruiting and trying to keep good employees. The dealership employs 155 people.

"It's a difficult task because there's lots of competition for good employees, not just from other dealerships but from all businesses," he says.

Mike is moving the dealership into the world of high technology and recently added a second person in the Internet department. He offers customers the opportunity to make service appointments by e-mail.


Like the auto business, dealerships have changed dramatically through the years.

After receiving the first shipment of Ford vehicles, dealership founder Steve Tenvoorde built his first sales outlet, a one-story brick building in downtown St. Cloud. He remodeled in 1916, adding a two-story addition that included a five-car showroom and service area on the lower level and a body repair shop upstairs.

Cy Tenvoorde built a new dealership in 1951, paying in cash.

The dealership moved to its present location in 1978, in celebration of its 75th anniversary.

Says Jack Tenvoorde: "Of course, we didn't pay cash for that one."

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