A Life: Erwin J. Clifford, 1923-2017; ‘If Erwin Clifford Tells You He Can Do Something, He Can Make It Happen”

  • Erwin Clifford at his West Hartford, Vt., car dealership in Sept. 1970. (Valley News photograph) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Erwin Clifford at Hanover Terrace in July 2016. (Courtesy Ryan Scelza)

Valley News Staff Writer
Monday, December 04, 2017

West Hartford — It was 1952, and Erwin Clifford — in his late 20s, tall and lean and forward-looking — was trying his best to look like a serious businessman, and not like a North Pomfret farm boy who’d quit school after a single day in the ninth grade.

“He put on what he thought was his best clothes and he went to Boston,” said Bruce Tuthill, Clifford’s longtime friend.

Clifford had never been out of the Twin States before. The biggest town in the region was Lebanon, with 8,000 people. Boston had 800,000.

Clifford’s goal was to convince the people at the regional Chrysler headquarters that they should site a new Dodge dealership in the village of West Hartford, with himself as franchise owner. He had eight years experience fixing up and selling used cars out of a farm property, where he’d converted the chicken coop into a repair shop, and a cow barn into a garage.

Clifford found the office, which was full of trim suits and well-manicured fingernails, and made his pitch.

Clifford always prided himself on his ability to read people — he’d honed his emotional intelligence while closing hundreds of handshake deals out of the garage on Route 14. But, perhaps because of the vast cultural gap between rural Vermont and bustling Boston, he couldn’t tell what was going on behind their polite, noncommittal smiles as they thanked him for his interest.

If we’d like to move forward, they told him, we’ll be in touch.

On his way out the front door, Tuthill said, Clifford was surprised to bump into a man from West Lebanon, with whom he had a nodding acquaintance.

“Erwin Clifford!” the man said, surprised to see a farmer from his corner of the world in the busy metropolis. “What are you doing here?”

When Clifford explained himself, the man led him back into the Chrysler office.

“If Erwin Clifford tells you he can do something,” the man announced loudly, “he can make it happen!”

A few weeks later, the first Dodge showed up on Clifford’s West Hartford farm.

The deal set Clifford up as the driving force behind the growth of both his business, and for the village.

Rivalrous Friendship

A few years after Clifford secured the franchise, another Chrysler dealership came to town. In 1955, Peter Flanagan and Andre Rocheleau bought a garage from Sherman Manning at the intersection of Route 5 and Route 14, and turned it into Hartford Motors.

The Chrysler Corporation wanted Clifford to sell the Dodge brand, and Hartford Motors to sell its Plymouth line.

That posed a problem for Clifford because the Dodge models generally cost more than the Plymouths.

“A Plymouth Valiant cost $200 less than a Dodge Dart, which was pretty much the same car,” Tuthill remembered.

There was also a basic mismatch between their customer bases — Hartford Motors was highly visible and had more curb appeal for the white-collar professionals who would come in from the tri-town area of Hanover, Hartford and Lebanon.

“We got to know a lot of doctors,” Rocheleau said. “They were all at our door and we were happy for it. I think the professional people will make the decision (to buy a car) very quickly.”

Clifford’s bread and butter, by contrast, lay with the farming families of the Upper Valley’s more rural areas, such as Sharon, Tunbridge and Strafford. Before the more cautious farmers took their wallets out of their pants pockets, they’d go squint-eyed with thinking.

Given the highly competitive nature of the car-selling industry, it would have been natural for Clifford to develop a frosty, even bitter, relationship with Flanagan and Rocheleau as customers floated from dealership to dealership, playing them off against each other to get better prices for themselves.

But that never happened.

“Often, he would come into our dealership just to visit, Rocheleau said. “He would come in, and customers would say ‘Erwin, we always wondered where you bought your cars.’ ”

Clifford took the ribbing with his characteristic good humor. “He’d dance around and laugh a bit and say, ‘I don’t buy them here.’ ”

In 1957, when Rocheleau got married and found himself between houses, Clifford offered him a nice furnished apartment in a building he owned in Hartford Village. And in 1972, when Hartford Motors was displaced by the bridge that connects Maple Street to White River Junction’s downtown area, Clifford offered to demolish the old building in exchange for the materials he salvaged from it.

Even after Peter’s son, Jim Flanagan, bought Hartford Motors, Clifford was still a regular visitor.

“You know, Jim,” the younger Flanagan remembers him saying. “In this business, you either go up or you go down. There is no level.”

Trading to the Top

Faced with his competitor’s wealthier client base and lower sticker prices, Clifford staked everything on the farming community he had grown up in. He played up his reputation as a Yankee trader who would buy the clunkiest of clunkers, and who closed deals on handshakes. Tuthill said he remembers a sign for Clifford’s Garage, which boasted that the business would accept a cow for a down payment.

He also made sure to hire the sons of family farmers. Ray Longley said that, when his father was forced to close down the family farm and sell off its assets at auction in 1961, Clifford came and offered to put Ray, then 19, to work at the dealership, for a dollar an hour.

With the exception of a couple of years working for the town of Pomfret, Longley worked for Clifford for the next 25 years. For many years, his primary job was servicing cars — not used ones, but new ones. A truck would come in with six or seven cars from the factory on it, and Longley would spend as much as a day on each one of them, first fixing their alignment, then bending the doors so that they would conform with the frame well enough to keep the water out.

“It was a chore,” Longley said.

Longley remembers riding around on a bumpy road in the trunk of a car, with a flashlight and a screwdriver, trying to locate the source of a bothersome rattle. It was a spring shackle, he discovered. Easy fix, once someone had gone the extra mile to find it.

In the early ‘70s, Clifford asked Longley to come help him with a repossession from a man who’d gotten in over his head, “up in the farm country up Randolph way.”

Longley learned he was needed for two reasons — having an extra person for backup was always a good idea, in case the repossession turned ugly. The second reason was that Clifford wanted Longley to drive a second vehicle up there, a clunker that Clifford didn’t have much use for.

“He gave him the car, and took the car he wasn’t paying for,” Longley remembered. “He wasn’t going to leave him without a vehicle.”

Another early hire of Clifford was Joe Krivak, who lived across the road. As shop foreman, Krivak became known for keeping his own running statistics of which car parts from the factory were prone to failure, so that he could stay one step ahead of his customer’s needs.

Though Clifford’s sticker price was higher, he urged his blue collar customers to think their purchase through to its conclusion. They recognized that Longley had worked on the cars until they were better than the day they rolled off the factory line. They recognized that Krivak would service their cars competently, at a reasonable price. And all of those future transactions were underwritten by Clifford himself, who had, perhaps, hired a cousin who was down on his luck, or given a break to a neighbor that badly needed one.

“A lot of people would pay a little bit of a premium. If he told you something and gave you his word, you didn’t have to have it in writing,” said Tuthill.

And if a customer came to him with a complaint, Clifford was often happy to take a loss in the moment.

“I’ll get it back when we trade again,” another longtime employee, Ron Stender, remembers him saying.

Clifford’s reputation, and his business, grew, a little at a time. He spun off enterprises, like Clifford’s Loam & Gravel. He went from having his body work done at a shop owned by Everett Hardy to opening his own body shop, and hiring Hardy to run it.

For the staff, the pay wasn’t the greatest. But everywhere were signs that Clifford and the workers were in the same boat, and that their fortunes would rise and fall together. In lean months, everyone fretted. If there was a good month, everyone got a bonus.

And though Clifford demanded hard work from his staff, which peaked at around 80 workers, he also made sure they had time to live as well. The sales staff and the mechanics played cribbage together during lunchtime.

Sometimes, when Longley was on the clock, Clifford would insist that they go play hooky together, and take off hunting bobcats along a rocky ledge in Vershire.

Clifford threw an annual Christmas party, when the whole workforce brought their families to his house. One of the workers would dress up as Santa Claus for the kids. One year, Santa got drunk while waiting at the garage.

“It was quite the party,” Longley said.

Over time, Clifford’s business philosophy paid off.

“He was the biggest Dodge truck dealer east of the Mississippi for quite a while,” Tuthill said.

Clifford also fought to keep West Hartford Village vibrant. When the store that hosted the post office closed down, Clifford arranged for a new location for it, across the road, to prevent the service from leaving the village. He was also responsible for the creation of Clifford Park, which is still maintained by the town.

“He kept the West Hartford store going,” Tuthill said. “He kept the whole village alive.”

March of Progress

Running the garage wasn’t always fun.

Once, during a coffee break, one of the mechanics didn’t come outside. When the coffee break was over, the rest of the mechanics saw that he’d died of a heart attack. Not long after Krivak, the shop foreman, got cancer. When he died, Clifford, who considered him a dear friend, took it hard.

And in the meantime, the industry was changing, in ways that Clifford did not like.

Early in the relationship he could buy a Dodge for $1,200 from the factory and sell it for $1,800.

By the mid-’70s, that was no longer the case.

“The profit margins tightened up, and the quality of the car was terrible,” said Tuthill.

Chrysler, like its other national competitors, began putting increasing pressure on its dealers to take more cars, and turn them over more quickly.

“You had more pressure to sell because you had more money sitting in the lot that you’re paying interest on,” said Jim Flanagan, who said he and Clifford would often commiserate about the interference of the factory.

“He would grumble about it,” Flanagan said. “They want you to do this. They want you to do that.”

The new requirements led to more paperwork, more cars on the lots, more levels of bureaucracy, and less room for Clifford to operate. In the end, the man who’d pushed for progress his entire life was overtaken by the progress of the industry.

“Corporations, they’re used to going big, push push push,” Flanagan said. “You kind of lose your, if you subscribe to it, you lose your identity at some point. That takes the folksiness out of it, I guess.”

Clifford chafed under the requirements. He put on weight. He worried about tying his fortunes to a company that was, at times, under a clear financial strain.

Once, he refused to take a shipment of cars that the company was trying to dump on him just before releasing the next year’s more desirable models. Finally, Clifford and Chrysler clashed over a financial dispute that, according to Tuthill, had to do with whether Clifford could use credit owed to him by the company to pay for new cars coming to the lot.

Clifford gathered his workforce around him — all farmers, friends, and people he had grown up with.

“He told everyone, ‘You have a paycheck until you get another job. But I’m closing the franchise,” said Tuthill.

After Clifford sold the garage in 1980, the new ownership butted heads with Clifford’s old workforce. Longley felt the company had lost its respect for the experienced staff.

“I drove my rig down and loaded up my toolbox,” he said. “Almost all of them left. I don’t think there was hardly anyone that stayed.”

Stender left too, after 23 years with the garage.

“If Erwin was still there, I’d probably still be there, too,” he said.

Without Clifford at the helm, the garage soon went out of business.

Though he lacked the garage, Clifford had connections, and he had the knack for buying and selling used vehicles, so he kept on into his late 80s.

Ryan Scelza, who became close to Clifford in his later years, said the car business was never just a job.

“It’s who he was,” Scelza said. “Even in his nineties, he could remember who he sold what car and for how much.”

Scelza said Clifford’s impact was huge, going well beyond his hundreds of employees, and thousands of customers.

“Pomfret and West Hartford were much different places 30 to 50 years ago,” he said. “And Erwin was in the very middle of it all.”

Scelza said that, just months before his death in September at the age of 94, Clifford could still be seen mowing his lawn, and those who stopped to talk with him were sure to hear about his time at the garage.

“He certainly kept many fond memories about that time in his life, but more importantly,” Scelza said, “the people he had surrounded himself with. He truly cared.”

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling can be reached at mhonghet@vnews.com or 603-727-3211.