Monthly Archives: August 2015

Islington Chrysler Building for the Future

Motoring Memories

Islington Chrysler builds for the future with Fiat

Islington motors building exterior today

Photo courtesy Al Rams

By Dale Johnson, for Old Autos, November 2013

After 53 years, one of the oldest car dealerships in Canada has a new home.

But Islington Chrysler didn’t move from its familiar location in southwestern Toronto, at 5476 Dundas Ave. West, just east of the 427 Highway. An extreme $5-million makeover began in 2012, was completed in the spring of 2013, and they moved into the new facility in May 2013. Although parts of the original building remain, the renovations make it unrecognizable.

The original building – where the dealership opened in October 1960 – had several A-frame peaked windows, which was to play off the Chrysler pentastar logo of the 1960s.

“A unique building for sure, but dated,” says Kris Rams, vice-president and general manager of Islington Chrysler.

Fiat's outside the 1961 building

Photo courtesy City of Toronto Archives, Series 1464

Grand Opening Ad 1960

Islington Chrysler was the newest Plymouth dealer in Toronto for the 1961 models

The new building is more conventional and fits in with the current architecture of car dealerships.

But it’s more than just a new building…

new building during construction

Extensive renovations were underway when this picture was taken in Sept. 2012

The new building is more conventional and fits in with the current architecture of car dealerships.

But it’s more than just a new building…

“Is there a future here? If there wasn’t, we shouldn’t have spent millions on this new building. That’s my job now – to keep selling cars,” says Rams.

The idea of a new building has been considered for some time, but Chrysler’s financial problems a few years ago meant the idea had to be put on hold.

“Getting past 2009, the decision was the time is right, especially with a new partner in Fiat,” explains Rams.

Islington Chrysler is one of the Chrysler dealers in Toronto that’s handling Fiat products. And that required a new facility with a separate area for Fiats.

“Chrysler has been out of the small car game for so long, I think we forgot what a big segment of the marketplace that really is. Fiat has brought customers into our showroom who would have never come into a Chrysler dealership otherwise,” says Rams.

Islington Chrysler has been handling the new Fiat 500 since March 2011.

“It’s been a major player in our lineup. In June 2012, for the first time, we delivered more Fiat 500s than we did Caravans. And at this dealership, the Caravan minivan has been our bread-and-butter since it came out in 1983.”

Although Fiat is making a return to North America after buying Chrysler, selling Fiats at Islington Chrysler isn’t a new idea. When the dealership opened in October 1960, it was selling Fiats, because Chrysler was then handling distribution of Fiats in North America. The grand prize giveaway at Islington Chrysler’s grand opening was a new Fiat.

Fiat's outside the 1961 building

Islington Chrysler was the newest Plymouth dealer in Toronto for the 1961 models

Ad for a Fiat costing $1,398

An ad for an early Fiat, when Islington Chrysler was one of eight dealerships in Toronto handling Fiat.

new fiats in the showroom

Islington Chrysler began selling Fiats – again – in March 2011. (Photo courtesy Kris Rams).

Although he wasn’t around for the first wave of Fiats at Chrysler dealerships in the early 1960s, Kris Rams says “I’ve been coming here to this dealership since I was old enough to walk.”

That’s because his father, Al Rams, used to run Islington Chrysler. In 1981 Al was part of a group that acquired the business from the dealer at that time, Wyman Hayes, who had acquired it from Jim Swan in 1963. But Al is stepping away from daily operations and Kris oversees the parts, sales and service departments.

Al earned a degree in economics at Waterloo Lutheran University(now Wilfred Laurier University), and started in the car business right after he graduated in the early 1970s. He worked at a few Chrysler dealerships in Toronto, including West End Chrysler, before being part of a group that bought Islington Chrysler in 1981. He says the magic wagon – the iconic Chrysler mini-vans introduced in 1983 – greatly improved business. Al later bought out the other partners.

Few dealerships last for 50 years. Kris says sometimes dealerships close because of mismanagement, or a death in the family, or the children are handed the dealership and then run it into the ground. Kris says his father wasn’t going to let that happen to Islington Chrysler.

“Al had seen it enough times, so that was not an option. If I was interested in this business, I had to prove that I wanted to do it, and that I was capable of doing it. Being around the car business, from a very early age I took an interest in cars, and I like cars and driving. But there were times in high school and university when I thought I might have tried something different.”

He went to the University of Western Ontario in London and graduated with a four-year Bachelor’s degree in History and Economics. Then he attended Northwood University in Midland, Michigan, which specializes in the automotive marketing and management.

His first summer job in the car business was washing trucks as a lot boy at Tower Ford trucks. Then he worked in the service department at a Toyota dealership. He also worked for a time at Chrysler Financial, and also at an independent used car wholesaler.

61 Plymouth fury ad

Islington Chrysler displayed a Chrysler turbine-powered car, the 1962 Plymouth Turbo Fury.

checking out the engine

On hand were (left to right) Gordon McNamara, assistant zone manger of Chrysler’s Ontario zone; R. David Pearse, general manager of Islington Chrysler; Lee Wood and Gordon Allardyce of the engineering department of Chrysler.

cars displayed outside for a 1963 promotional event

Islington Chrysler showed off the new 1963 models at the nearby Cloverdale Mall (Photo courtesy Kris Rams).

1961 Valiant ad

Islington Chrysler was one of 18 dealerships inToronto handling the compact Valiant, which was sold through both Plymouth and Dodge dealers.

 “When I joined Islington Chrysler in 2003, I started as a shipper-receiver in the parts department. Then I drove the parts truck for one summer. After that I spent time working in the office for about six or eight months, and learned how to process files and receivables, and licences. After that I started to sell used cars for six or eight months. Then I went into the new car showroom for six or eight months. I then took over our in-house lease company for about a year-and-a-half. Then I became new car manager.”

Al says that diverse experience has prepared Kris to run the dealership.

“In the earlier years, Kris was impatient. Something would come up and he would say ‘Can you give me the three-word answer?’ and I’d say ‘No, it’s not that easy.’ Now I have full faith in his abilities. He’s gained my trust and my respect that he is making the right business decisions.”

Al and Kris Rams with a Viper

Al (left) and Kris Rams inside their dealership. (Photo courtesy Kris Rams).

Currently, Al and Kris are partners, although Kris is in the process of buying out Al. Kris understands the necessity for other key managers to also become partners. Although Al is president, he is stepping away from daily operations and Kris now is running the dealership as general manager.

“Our lawyers, accountants and bankers all deal with Kris, and that’s where I get feedback. They tell me we’re not their only automotive dealer – and they tell me Kris has got what it takes to run a dealership,” Al says.

Now that Kris has the title of vice-president and general manager, I asked him how is he running the place in similar ways as his father, Al.

“I’ve learned the car business from Al, so it’s almost impossible for me not to be like him, and to have gained some of his traits and business acumen. Customer service is number one. You could go to 20 or so other Chrysler dealerships in the Toronto area and buy the exact vehicles there. So what sets us apart? It’s customer service, being upfront and straightforward with people, honesty. We’ve been in business at this location for more than 50 years, and my Dad’s been at the helm since 1981. We’ve looked after generations of customers – often repeat customers, through word of mouth.”

Al says although father and son see many things in the same way, they each have their own styles. “I’m more forgiving than Kris, who is more results-oriented and has a focus on performance and accountability.”

Kris is putting his own stamp on running the dealership, and is changing with the times.

“The biggest difference is the internet, and how we can use the powers of the internet to do business going forward. Rather than having to come to car dealership lots, today, in the comfort of your own home on the internet, you can search out exactly what you’re looking for. You can price shop and compare, and see reviews on dealerships online. But at the end of the day you still cannot buy a car sitting in your living room,” Kris says.

He thinks the internet will have the biggest impact on used car sales. While hundreds of dealers are selling new vehicles, he says no two used vehicles are the same, which is what he’s found during the past seven years.

“If people are looking for something specific and they find it, they’re willing to drive. We have sold cars from here to as far away as Edmonton, Alberta.”

Kris also says there’s more competition when it comes to service, and that was another reason for putting up the new building.

“It’s a lot more competitive, and we see that on the service side. You can go to Costco or Wal-Mart or other places to get your oil changed or buy tires. For us as a franchised dealer, it’s our responsibility and our challenge to remind customers to come back to us for servicing.”

How does a dealership last more than 50 years?

“It’s the commitment to want to do it. There’s timing and there’s luck, but you’ve got to be good to be lucky. Al’s relationship with Chrysler corporately has served him very well over all these years.  We’re committed to them, and they’re committed to us. That strong relationship has really helped.”

I asked Kris if someday Islington Chrysler be passed on to a third generation of the Rams family.

“I see a possibility there someday. It would be the same way that Al was with me. I wouldn’t push it on my kids, because it’s not an easy business. I also wouldn’t give it to them. They would have to show an interest, show an ability and a desire to want to take it and make it theirs. I guess that’s what I’ve been able to show my dad, Al. I always knew I would probably end up doing this. If I wasn’t doing this, I’m not sure what I’d be doing. I’ve always had a passion for cars. I enjoy this.”

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