Ed Davis’ interest in cars started early in life in Shreveport, La., with his father’s Model T Ford providing the spark that ignited that interest.
The oldest of 10 children, Davis moved to Detroit to live with his aunt after his mother passed away in 1921. Upon graduating from Detroit’s Cass Technical High School, his career plans changed, choosing to pursue the automobile business rather than the accounting field that he had studied for.
Unfortunately, with no experience and unwritten barriers to employment for African-Americans, there were no jobs to be found. So Davis opened a car wash in a service garage not far from Dodge’s Hamtramck assembly facility.
There, a Dodge plant supervisor became a regular customer at Davis’ enterprise. Impressed by his ambition and love of automobiles, he found Davis a job in the Dodge foundry and later, the machine shop. In 1936, the supervisor’s son would open a new Dodge dealership and Davis was recruited for the job that would change his life.
A growing African–American population in Detroit, supported by resurgent new car demand seemed to insure success for Mr. Davis in his new career, if only dealership personnel hadn’t made him take an office in a storeroom on the second floor, far removed from the showroom. Undeterred, he furnished it himself, making it his “private office”. Before long, he was the dealership’s sales leader.
By 1938 Ed knew it was time to move on. Opening Davis Motor Sales, near downtown Detroit, he not only sold used cars but also brokered new vehicles for his customers. The Studebaker Corporation took note and, in 1940, awarded Davis a dealership. Following the war, the dealership’s business grew rapidly, soon selling 50 new Studebakers a month, significant sales for the small car maker. Unfortunately, Studebaker declared bankruptcy in 1956 and Davis was back where he started, seeking a new car franchise.
Initial efforts to acquire a “Big Three” franchise weren’t successful until Chrysler Corporation stated that they would: “appoint dealers who qualified, regardless of color.”
“The word came from the top”, Davis wrote in his autobiography. “In spite of a few who did not think the time had come to appoint a black man. I qualified”. In 1963, he was awarded a Chrysler-Plymouth franchise in Detroit that he operated until his retirement in 1971.
In retirement, Davis didn’t stop working. He accepted an appointment from then-Mayor Roman Gribbs, becoming general manager of Detroit’s mass transit system. He continued to consult with minority dealers and stayed involved in the Ed Davis Scholarship fund, benefitting African-American students pursuing degrees in the automotive field.
Mr. Davis passed away in 1999. His legacy continues throughout the community and the franchised automobile dealer industry.