While Napa’s Automobile Row along Soscol Avenue has been in existence for decades, the city’s automobile dealerships originally were established businesses right in the middle of the downtown area.
It wasn’t until after World War II, in the early 1950s, that the first dealership, Moffitt Motors, moved out to what would eventually evolve into today’s automobile row. The current Jimmy Vasser Chevrolet is now in that location.
During the war, because the automobile manufacturers had converted to the manufacture of vehicles for the military, new cars were not available. The last full model year for new cars was 1941. A few 1942 models of some cars were made, but not many. So, the dealers were primarily involved in the service and repair of pre-war cars.
WW II ended in August 1945 and the American public immediately became anxious for new cars. The 1946 models began rolling off the assembly line in early 1946. The first available were 1946 Fords.
The local dealerships during the war years all had small showrooms in the front of their businesses, rooms that might hold two or three cars. They had no new cars so they displayed newer used cars. The parts counter and the repair shop would be located behind the showroom. Most also had a small used car lot next to or near the repair shop.
Looking back, it seems like there was a dealership on every block. Thanks to some input from my friend Ed Barwick, himself a car dealer of a little later time, here’s where the dealers of those days were located.
The aforementioned Moffitt Motors, owned by former Napa Mayor Charlie Moffitt, was at the northwest corner of Third and Randolph streets, where Zeller’s Ace Hardware is now. I worked at Moffitt Motors as a parts runner while still in high school, right after the war.
Across Randolph Street, on the northeast corner of Third, was Gasser Motors — a Plymouth, Dodge and Dodge truck dealer. Peter Gasser, the founder of Napa’s philanthropic Gasser Foundation, was the owner. That site is now a hobby shop, Billco’s Billiards, a parking lot and the post office annex.
On Coombs Street, between Third and Fourth streets, across from the current County Administration building, was Green Motors, the Pontiac dealership. The showroom and garage building for Green was, until very recently, the Sullivan homeless shelter building for the city of Napa. The building has been razed.
The Ford dealership was owned by John Hill and it was located on the corner of Brown and Clay streets. Then, right next to the Ford dealership on Clay Street was Warner Motors, a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership owned by George Warner. It was on the corner of Clay and Coombs.
Both of those buildings, along with a lot of others in the downtown area, were razed during downtown redevelopment in the 1970s. A portion of the now-closed Mervyns department store now occupies both of those sites.
On the north side of Third at what is now the northwest corner of Third and Soscol is the historic two-story stone Borreo building owned by the city of Napa. On the ground floor of that building was Vanderschoot Motors, the Oldsmobile and Packard dealership, owned and operated by Felix Vanderschoot.
Just east of Vanderschoot Motors, on Third Street, on what is now the northeast corner of Third and Soscol, was Craigie Motors, the Buick and Cadillac dealership owned by Horace Craigie. The building still stands and houses Napa Valley Classics, a motorcycle dealership, as well as a hobby shop.
On Main Street, south of Third Street, backing up to the river, was Pioneer Motors, a Plymouth and DeSoto dealership. The name of the owner escapes me. It was later owned by Harold Doughty. That entire block is now an upscale commercial and residential development still under construction.
The Nash dealership, owned by Harold Troom, was at the north end of Coombs Street, corner of Pearl, near the current American Legion building.
Ferrari and Domenico was the Studebaker agency and it was at Brown and Fourth Streets, which is now part of the county administration area.
Finally, to my knowledge, the only dealership outside of downtown was the Hudson dealership at Main and Lincoln streets. I do not remember the name of the owner, and neither did Ed Barwick.
Napa As It Was appears every other Monday, alternating in this space with Betty Rhodes’ Senior Corner.