by Sally Mitani
Back in the early 1960s, young Howard Cooper wanted to buy a Chevy dealership. From a car family--his dad had a Dodge dealership in Kalamazoo--he knew how to sell cars. But he also knew that with the limited capital he could raise, he'd either have to take a small-town Chevy store or settle for a smaller brand.
Eventually he was offered a VW dealership. Though he thought the original rear-engined Beetle was "a funny-looking car," he took it. The location, too, wasn't what he originally wanted--he wanted a parcel of land on West Stadium, where Ace Hardware and Arbor Farms are now, but couldn't afford it. He settled for several acres of farmland just south of the city limits.
"People thought we were nuts to start a car dealership way out in the country," he remembers. But the Howard Cooper dealership is still there, now selling Porsches, Audis, and Hondas as well as VWs, and now one of only two dealerships still inside the city. (The other is Chrysler Jeep of Ann Arbor on West Stadium.) And while Chevy and other Detroit brands are still recovering from their near-death experience, his Howard Cooper Import Center is now right in the mainstream, selling everything from family sedans and SUVs to, in Honda's case, pickup trucks. Nor is import vs. U.S. the clear-cut issue it once was--many of the vehicles sold at Cooper, including the new hot-selling VW Passat, are made in America.
Cooper, at eighty-two, is still the dapper, smooth-talking car salesman who goes to work every day and supervises more than ninety employees, but he just wasn't up for the latest challenge--renegotiating the franchise with VW. The company, he says, has always refused to recognize the difficulty of selling global brands in Henry Ford country, and expects VW to have the same market penetration here that it does in, say, San Francisco.
So Cooper sold the business to the Germain family of Ohio--there are several generations of them
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