The first African American to be inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame.
Ed Davis, 1996 Automotive Hall of Fame Inductee, was the first African American to be inducted into the Hall and the first African American to own a new car dealership in Detroit.
Davis grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana and was the oldest of 10. He always had a love for cars and studied every inch of his father’s Ford Model-T. However, as he grew into a teenager, he realized there were not many economic opportunities for minorities in his hometown and he convinced his father to let him live with his aunt in Detroit. Davis attended Detroit Cass Technical High School with the desire to become an accountant. Unfortunately, much like he had discovered back home, the accounting field had few prospects for a person of color. Undeterred, he decided to return to his first love and enter the automobile business.
After graduating from Cass Tech in 1934, Davis opened his first business, renting a car wash attached to a gas station. Soon after, Davis caught the eye of a Dodge Brothers Plant superintendent named Mr. Lampkins who gave him a job at his assembly plant’s foundry; that would later lead to a job in the machine shop. In 1936, Davis was offered a job as a salesman at Limpkins’ new dealership he had set up for his son, Merton L. Lampkins Chrysler-Plymouth.
Even here, Davis faced discrimination. He was shunned by his white coworkers and given an office on the second floor of the dealership away from the sales floor. However, Davis took advantage of the space and dubbed it his “private office,” decorating it and making it his own. Davis was not allowed to work the showroom floor, but in doing so he was able to avoid the “tire kickers” who were just browsing. He established his own customer base and soon became the sales leader at the dealership, becoming well known in the black community.
Davis eventually decided to leave the Chrysler Dealership and open his own business, Davis Motor Sales, in downtown Detroit in 1939. He sold used cars but still brokered new car sales for customers. By 1940, Studebaker Corporation, looking to increase their sales in the Detroit area, offered Davis a franchise. Davis accepted the offer and used his entire life savings remodel and reface his building (he was unable to get a loan) to begin selling new Studebakers. This would make him third African American in the country to be awarded a new car franchise. Shortly after, he would be named president of the Studebaker Dealers Association of Detroit.
In 1955, after Studebaker was acquired by Packard Motor Car Co., Davis decided to drop his Studebaker franchise in hopes of acquiring a new car dealership with one of the “Big Three.” It wasn’t until 1963 that he was awarded a new-car franchise with Chrysler-Plymouth. Davis was first African American to own a new car dealership in Detroit when he opened Ed Davis, Inc., Plymouth-Chrysler-Imperial Dealership.
Davis’s dealership was immediately successful, and his team were selling an average of 1,000 new cars a year. Unfortunately, after the Detroit riots of 1967, the area his dealership was located in suffered from a drastic economic decline. Davis ultimately decided to close his dealership on February 26, 1971.
Following his success as an automobile dealer, Davis was appointed as general manager of the Detroit Department of Street Railways (now known as Detroit Department of Transportation). He remained in that position, the first African American to hold it, until 1974 when he officially retired. In 1979 he wrote his autobiography, One Man’s Way, and was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1996.
For all that Davis endured, he never lost his love for the automobile and always persevered through adversity. His impact to the automotive industry has been an important pillar in African American achievements and will be remembered by all.