George E. Alderman takes life in the fast lane as a matter of course. So do some of the other members of his immediate family.
Alderman, president and founder of Wilmington’s Alderman Nissan, is a member of the Sports Car Club of America and a charter member of the International Motor Sports Association. For more than 30 years, the local leader and franchiser has raced successfully on courses located all over the nation. Reflective of his skills behind the wheel, he is the holders of four national championships, two won in IMSA, two in SCCA.
A second generation of potential champions is warming up in the pits. Son Paul. A University of Delaware student, part-time Alderman Nissan employee and amateur competitor in 1989, will make his debut with the pros this spring, as father slows down his time in the cockpit of the racing car.
The third member of the clan, Marilyn Alderman, spends her days as secretary-treasurer of the corporation, a job she took on after her marriage to George in 1962. To relax, she too speeds off, but in a different direction – high above the clouds in one of the family-owned planes, an Aerospatiale Trinidad or the Piper Seneca III kept nearby at the New Castle County Airport.
That leaves one member of the family unaccounted for, daughter Laura, who currently resides in Florida and has so far resisted the lure of the family business, sports car racing and flight. But never say never, says dad. Family traditions are sometimes hard to escape.
Back in the 1950s, following a year of study at the University of Delaware, George Alderman went as a spectator to the races at Watkins Glen, NY and got hooked on the sport. In 1952, he bought an MGTD and was off and driving until several months later the Korean conflict interrupted a budding career. Discharged from the Army after two years, he was “hot to go racing,” but was slated instead to return to the classroom.
“However, spelling is not my strong suit and a professor in the English Department said there was no way I was going to make it through another three years of college if my spelling didn’t improve. I, on the other hand, thought that’s what dictionaries were for,” he jokes. “Anyway, Lex du Pont, was racing Cooper Formula IIIs and he convinced me to buy a Cooper, my first real race car, in the spring of 1956 and I’ve raced every year since then.”
Alderman supported his racing by working for a local car dealer selling and repairing cars. In 1961, he set himself up in business, working out of his apartment for a year, then opening the Alderman Automotive Sports and Racing Car Preparation Company in Newport, DE. In addition to general repairs, the young entrepreneur sold and serviced Lotus and Rover automobiles. That was the year Alderman, now completely bitten by the racing bug, began to run Lotuses.
Business was good, but space in the 25 X 70 foot shop got tight and Alderman looked around for a larger site for a garage and showroom. He found land on DuPont Highway near New Castle, purchased a couple acres and built both. “Since the Lotus was not a high volume seller, I decided we should also look for a franchise that would allow us to sell more than just the three or four cars a year we’d been selling,” he recalls. “Datsun was beginning to export cars to the United States and the corporation was getting into racing through the Sports Car Club of America. The company has its sports car, a pickup truck and a small sedan, all of which I thought would be good sellers, so I contacted the East Coast representative. Datsun was pleased to get a facility with a new showroom and we became a dealer for about $20,000, not a very big investment by today’s standards. And eventually I began racing the 510 and later the Z cars.”
Back in the sixties and early seventies, people who bough imported cars didn’t have much in the way of choice, Alderman notes. “Most people who wanted a small car usually thought about buying the Volkswagen bug, which comprised 60 percent of the foreign car market. Toyota and Nissan were coming on the scene, subsequently Honda; but in the early days, our shop people were working mainly on MGs, Triumphs, Fiats, Renaults and Jaguars.”
In 1968, Alderman sold 68 Datsuns. The following year, he sold 120, increasing sales annually until, in 1986, 1200 new Nissans rolled off the lot driven by satisfied customers who appreciated quality, good gas mileage and consistent service. Alderman Datsun became Alderman Nissan in the interim and evolved into a significantly expanded operation.
Today, the automotive machine shop is located in the original showroom which has been turned into a combined race car/machine shop, one of only a few in the Wilmington area. Engine overhaul services are provided for Alderman customers
“…What has happened is that every foreign and domestic manufacturer has been trying to increase its annual market share and more cars are being produced each year than can be sold, whether it’s GMs, Fords, Nissans or Toyotas.”
as well as for other tri-state dealers, miscellaneous race car owners, high performance car owners, boat owners – even forklift and other heavy equipment operators.
The Parts and Service Departments share a building in the back of the lot; used cars is down the road a quarter of a mile; and new car sales and administration occupy a modern facility at the front of the four plus acres owned now by the corporation.
And, of course, parked off to the side is a large tractor trailer bearing the words Alderman Racing, used to carry a five-man winning team, two race cars and numerous tires and other parts and equipment cross-country from April through October.
A year or so ago, the corporation went into the leasing business, allowing the dealership to lease any type or make of car to present and prospective customers. “Most dealers are involved in automobile leasing to one extent or another as a direct offshoot of sales,” Alderman explains, “but we wanted to be able to lease all makes and models as a service to customers who had done business
“Few people stop to consider that U.S. manufacturers have begun supplementing their domestic lines with imported cars and that some GMs, Chryslers and Fords are being built in Japan, just as Nissan Trucks and Sentras are built with American labor at a Nissan factory in Tennessee.”
with us in the past and liked doing business with us but who maybe wanted another make of car. We aimed the service at both the business and personal leasing markets. Our people will even shop for a customer and arrange a lease or a buy. We’ll go to the home or the office and it makes no difference whether one car or a fleet of cars is involved.
People’s buying habits have changed during the years the company has been in business, he says. There are now a wide variety of domestic and imported makes and models from which to choose; hence, competition among all dealers is intense, particularly for importers who have been affected by depreciation of the dollar in the last ten years.
“I never sold Chevrolets or Fords so I can’t speak for domestic car dealers, although I understand things have become much more competitive for them as well. But what has happened is that every foreign and domestic manufacturer has been trying to increase its annual market share and more cars are being produced each year than can be sold, whether its GMs, Fords, Nissans or Toyotas. We had very strong sales in the early and mid-seventies because of the energy crunch, since nobody was making fuel efficient cars but the Japanese and the Germans. People couldn’t get enough of them and it was a sellers’ market,” he says. “Tariffs weren’t even a factor in those days.”
However, tariffs, in combination with fluctuations in international currency rates did become a factor later on, he adds. “I remarked in 1978 that we were beginning the model year with the Datsun210 priced at about $3000 – similar to the cost of the Ford Pinto and the Chevy Vega. But the value of the yen increased another $800 by the end of the model year. Strangely enough, domestic manufacturers didn’t take advantage of the potentially favorable situation and went ahead and raised their prices so that at the end of the model year all three of these cars cost about $4000. A few years later, the value of the yen decreased, but importers were forced to keep the prices of their cars up because of the pressure from Detroit. Then in the latest go round a couple of years ago, when the dollar when down in value, the price of imports rose once more and this time domestic manufacturers did not raise their prices, so now they have the advantage.”
Still perceiving that customers feel they get better value for their money with an imported automobile, Alderman says the bias provides an edge for import car dealers. “In addition, the world is much smaller now, figuratively speaking,” he observes. “It’s not like 100 years ago when there were so many barriers to trade. You can jump on a plane and be overseas in no time at all. And manufacturing being what it is today, cars can be put together anywhere. Few people stop to consider that U.S. manufacturers have begun supplementing their domestic lines with imported cars and that some GMs. Chryslers and Fords are being built in Japan, just as Nissan trucks and Sentras are built with American labor at a Nissan factory in Tennessee. But no matter where the cars are manufactured, there is certainly going to be more and more competition in the business. That’s why we took on a Yugo franchise in 1988.”
Alderman believed the Yugo would offer an attractive alternative to consumers in the form of an inexpensive, smaller new car priced comparably to a used car. The franchise, he projected, would compliment Alderman’s used car facility very well. “Unfortunately, the Yugo got such a poor reputation from the start that not many people wanted to buy one,” he admits. “The current model is much improved and has an excellent warranty, but the public still isn’t receptive to the Yugo because of the reputation of the earlier model.”
Looking forward to a new decade in the industry, Alderman predicts antilock brakes and air bags will become stand features in most automobiles. A big supporter of safety personally and professionally, in part because of his years on the racing circuit, he is chairman of Delawareans for Safety Belt Use and has served as a board member of the Delaware Safety Council. In 1989, the corporation received a Judges’ Special Citation presented by the Dealer’s Safety and Mobility Council of the Highway Users Federation as a part of the annual National Dealer Safety Awards program.
Alderman also believes a good service department is and will continue to be a facet of any dealership that has to shine for the dealer to remain competitive. He points out that knowledge gained over time from studying the performance of his racing cars has greatly improved the daily delivery of service to Alderman customers. As a result, Alderman Nissan has been a four-time winner of the Nissan Award of Merit for Outstanding Performance and Dealership Excellence. “Service is an area all dealers must concentrate on in the future,” he adds.
Finally, although sales have leveled off since 1986 and Alderman Nissan is no longer the only franchisee in northern Delaware, the founder of this particular dealership sees slow but steady growth ahead. And, he indicated the products themselves will undergo a few basic changes: “Cars will continue to become more fuel efficient and aerodynamic and they’ll perform better overall,” he says. “Nissan has already made tremendous strides in these areas and will continue to break new ground. I don’t think there’s any question that the Japanese offer a quality product and that they stand behind whatever products they make. And since there aren’t many franchises available in the immediate market right now from any manufacturer, I believe it will be quality in both product and service, that will make a difference to the consumer in the end. This is precisely what we’ll continue to offer our customers here at Alderman.”