November 4, 2010

Dave Allen: Driving off into the Sunset

Dave Allen is ready to move on. He's selling the business his grandfather started 63 years ago.
Union Leader Correspondent

DERRY – By week’s end, the five cars left standing on Dave Allen’s used car lot in Derry will be whittled down to two — two are ready for auction, and another one is already spoken for. With any luck, they will all be gone by next week as word circulates that after 25 years of doing business along Manchester Road, Dave Allen’s place is going dark.
Selling off his fleet of used cars is one of the last rites for Allen as he moves on to some new venture.
For now there are cardboard boxes everywhere inside the show 
room, and the place echoes as you walk up the stairs to where Allen is seated in a bare bones office. 
“This is it,” he says, pushing back in his office chair, the view from the picture window behind him frames the almost empty lot, and a side view of the Pinkerton Tavern. 
He is smiling broadly as he talks about how it feels to be getting out of the used car business — something he inherited from his grandfather who, in 1947, opened the East Derry Garage along with Allen’s dad, Glenn. 
“Mostly they pumped gas and fixed cars, but they were always selling used cars from their little garage on the East Side,” said Allen. 
Around the time Allen was born, his dad opened shop as a franchised Mercury dealer. By the time he came home from college in 1978, Allen was all in, working for his dad and uncle, Powell Allen, in a business that has been one of two family side-by-side car dealerships that for 63 years anchored this town. 
In August his cousin, Troy Allen, sold off Allen Motors next door to a buyer from Maine, Boomer Wolf LLC, which paid $1,277,000 for the prime corner real estate. 
According to the Norwood Group, which represented Allen, it will be a “shadow anchor” site for the proposed Super Walmart, which is slated for construction on land behind both lots. 
“I made the decision to sell eight weeks ago. Prior to that, I was thinking I was going to hang in there — our service business was good. But the outlook down the road wasn’t so great — with Walmart being built, we would be losing another 40 feet out front for the road widening, and the construction would keep customers away. And it doesn’t look like the economy is bouncing back in a hurry,” said Allen. 
The same buyer who paid $1.2 million cash for his cousin’s place made Allen an offer he couldn’t refuse. 
“At 54, you do the math — even if the business bounced back in three years, by then I’m 57, which is just about the same age my dad was when he started to step back from this business,” said Allen, who has decided no matter what comes next, it’s going to be an adventure. 
“In 2008 I was waiting to see what Walmart was going to do, when the whole world changed,” said Allen. He downsized his operation from 19 employees to 12 and struggled to find the kind of quality used cars at auction that he’d always relied on to feed the demand for used cars. 
“My business plan was always to sell more used cars than new, and that worked out until the new dealers went bankrupt. People were holding on to their cars, and dealers were holding on to their trade-ins. I knew the Mercury franchise was on life support — all things considered, I have no regrets,” said Allen. “This market has grown so small and there are a lot of us still picking at it. When I put the pluses and minuses down on paper, there just weren’t enough pluses anymore to keep me here.” 
He has never thought of doing anything else — for Allen, it’s always been the smell of the engine grease and the roar of a souped-up classic ride. 
“I still love classic cars — I grew up with them. In a perfect world, maybe I’d reinvent myself as a classic car dealer — who knows, maybe I still will. But since I made the decision to sell the business, I’ve been getting a lot of unexpected offers. Right now, I have no idea what I will do next, but I will always be doing something with classic cars,” said Allen. 
Despite his years in the business, Allen admits he has trouble telling a Hyundai from a Honda. 
“They all look the same, unless you can see the emblem on the car it’s hard to tell what you’re looking at. That’s why I love the classic cars — especially those made from ‘68 to ‘74. Cars back then had personality, and people had emotional relationships with their cars,” said Allen. 
“It’s been a long time since someone got excited about buying a new car from me. 
These days people buy them for function — minivans or SUVs. It’s like selling toothpaste — something someone needs, versus something they’ve been dreaming of.” 
Allen offers to show off the current car of his own dreams — a 1971 sky blue Mercury Cyclone Spoiler — one of only 353 made that year. It’s got 9,000 miles on it, including three he’s racked up moving it from point A to point B for restoration. 
“I’ll sell it in the spring,” he says, pulling a cardboard price tag from the back seat that reads $87,777. “That’s in the neighborhood of what I’ll get for it — all I have left to do is replace the steering wheel,” he says, gripping the wheel like a secret handshake with an old friend. 
Allen calls his decision to exit a perfect storm of circumstances — the economic blight within the car industry, a good offer for his land, and his mid-life interest in reinvention. 
“There was a generation of dealers, my dad’s generation, that are all exiting the business now. I’m a hands-on guy, and I just didn’t want to be the 75 year-old car dealer watching in the background,” said Allen. 

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