(first posted 3/17/2016) Today, McKeesport, PA is a hollowed-out former steel town. But in 1958, the “Tube City” was the heart of a still-thriving Mon Valley. 50,000 people called it home, almost 10,000 worked at U.S. Steel’s National Tube Works, and the city, located at the confluence of the Monongehela and Youghiogheny Rivers, was Mon Valley’s shopping and entertainment center.
Strung along Fifth Avenue were three department stores, four theaters, and dozens of specialty shops. And over a dozen automobile dealers could be found on and off Walnut Street’s”auto row”. Compared to downriver Pittsburgh, McKeesport was small, it but acted big. The city was the headquarters of G.C. Murphy Co., a regional 5 & 10 chain, and several manufacturers. It sponsored its own symphony orchestra and theater group. And every winter it hosted its own auto show, held in the still-functioning Palisades Dance Hall along the Youghiogheny River.
Back then, my father, Bill Swartz, was working days at Standard Auto Company, his in-law’s Chrysler-Plymouth dealership, while getting a graduate degree at night. And thanks to him, we can travel back and get a preview of the 1958 McKeesport Auto Show in glorious Kodachrome.
Let’s start with America’s favorite brand, Chevrolet. Chevy was one of the few all-new cars for ’58, and the folks at Deveraux Chevrolet put a fine two-tone Bel Air hardtop at the front of their display. Local ads asked you to “Get a Chevy from Devvie” and the agency was literally on the move, becoming the first brand to leave downtown for a suburban location.
They were soon joined by Peckman-Rojohn, whose bulky Lincoln and space-age Mercurys can be seen in the background. Bill Peckman was a popular member of the Youghiogheny Country Club, and well into the 70s, Lincolns, and not Cadillacs, filled the parking lot there. Barely visible behind the white Lincoln are a pair of relatively sober Oldsmobiles from Bruce Brown, later the town’s Toyota dealer.
And let’s take a moment to reflect on the banner in the upper left corner, put up by John Mooney, the town’s new Edsel dealer. Fresh off the demise of his Packard franchise, Mooney must have felt cursed, but his next venture made him a small fortune – he became the town’s Volkswagen dealer.
Turning around, we get a nice view of a taupe Mercury and the graceful flank of the almond-colored Fury Galen & Jones DeSoto-Plymouth brought to the show. But what’s that somber black car intruding on the right? It’s a Vauxhall Victor, the British GM compact sold by Palmer Pontiac. Quite the contrast to the Big M, and a sign that things were changing, even in the industrial heartland.
Moving down the hall and back to the opening image, we can see Galen and Jones also brought a Fireflite 4-door hardtop to their display. On the left, and looking uncomfortably similar, are a Pontiac hardtop from Palmers Motors, and a hint of a Series 62 from Superior Cadillac. But pride of place goes to the 2-tone lilac and white Fairline from Joe Eger – who took over the town’s Ford agency in 1938 when my Great Grandfather decided to hitch his wagon to then Number 2 Chrysler Corporation. Incidentally, the last true dealer new car preview I attended was at Eger Motors in 1975.
Speaking of Chrysler, here’s the Standard Auto display. My dad managed to pry enough money from my Great Aunt, then Chrysler’s only female dealer, to roll out the red carpet for a trio of all-whit-ish Mopars. There’s a Plymouth Sport Suburban, an Imperial Custom sedan, and a New Yorker convertible.
Let’s take a closer look at that Imperial. The truth is, we didn’t sell many of these – maybe 5 or 6 a year. The bulk of the business was Plymouths and lower-level Chrysler Windsors, although that didn’t stop my dad from propping up another New Yorker convertible with a Highlander plaid interior as a showroom display. And in a sea of two-tones, those monochrome Mopars really stood out.
As we take one last look, a few notes about the brands not on display. Both the Dodge and Buick franchises were in flux, but Paul Jones Dodge and Sullivan Buick would soon be fixtures. The Rambler dealer’s absence was easy to explain – the franchise was literally downstairs, on the ground floor of the dance hall. And there hadn’t been a Studebaker dealer in town for years, although the old dealership building on Walnut Street is one of town’s finer remaining buildings.
That’s it for our trip back to 1958. The next year, my dad finished his industrial management degree and went on to a career in food chemicals. The dealerships continued to generally prosper into the 70s, although many followed Deveraux out to the suburbs. My Great Aunt resisted, and finally closed Standard Auto in 1967. (I was 2 years old and didn’t have a say, to say the least.) The building still stands as the warehouse of Sunray Electric Company, a prosperous business in a once-prosperous town.