A local motoring tradition closing its doors
... saying good-bye to an old friend.
by Bob Burgess
This article, written by Editor Bob Burgess, was reprinted with permission from the Melrose Weekly News, September 8 - 14, 2005
Bob LeSaffre is at his desk inside the family's Chrysler dealership, looking onto Main Street through the same window he's used for the past five decades.
"This really is like saying goodbye to an old friend."
After decades of outfitting Melrose, Wakefield and area drivers with Chrysler vehicles and offering the highest quality service, the LeSaffres on Sept. 15 will shutter the business started by Bob's father Robert in the late 1930s. The simple fact of the matter is that the time has come for Bob and his brothers Don, Dan and John to retire.
"I've sat in this window for 50 years and watched Melrose change and automobiles change. I was here in 1965 when the Friendly's across the street blew up. Our place was heavily damaged; doors were blown off the service area, our roof lifted a bit but our walls remained intact. I remember trolleys running up the middle of the street. I remember trees along this section of Main Street. Kids still walk by on their way to the high school. They're dressed a little differently today, of course. The city's been updated, but it really hasn't changed that much," LeSaffre offered.
As for the cars, LeSaffre, who lives in the Greenwood section of Wakefield, said, "The cars today are so far ahead of what they were in handling and safety. When I started, there was no such thing as power steering, which made it difficult for some women to drive. The cars didn't have heaters; you'd have a gas Southwind heater under the passenger seat, which wasn't the safest thing. You didn't have spare tires. Cars back then sold for $700 or $800. In 1958, Chrysler wanted to have a footing in the small sports car business, so we got the Austin Healey and the Austin Healey MG, and the Morris Minor. In the early 1970's, the long gas lines began and we couldn't get rid of the bigger cars. I remember when we sold gas next door (at what is now Lucey's Citgo) for 12, 13 cents a gallon."
The LeSaffres can't say enough about the years they've spent selling cars in Melrose.
"I can't think of any other town I'd rather have done business in," Bob LeSaffre said. "We're extremely grateful. This business and this city have supplied a damn good living for all seven of us, and the city's always been more than fair." In addition to Bob and his three brothers, three of Bob's children also work at the dealership. They're all college educated.
"Going out of business is awfully hard to do, especially when you realize how people have come to depend on you, Bob said. "Someone came in the other day, a customer for 50 years, and he actually began crying because he didn't know what he was going to do without us. My feeling has been that the older generation had loyalty and appreciated good service, and that's what we provided. The newer generation buys cars off the Internet, and wants all sorts of deals and price reductions. You can't survive in the retail business without sales."
Dealing with Daniels LeSaffre Chrysler has always been about more than buying a car. The LeSaffres looked after their customers, bringing them back and forth from their homes when their cars were in the shop out back. They talked with you and asked about your family. They were friends.
And that's why they'll be missed.
Robert C. LeSaffre, born in France, emigrated and landed in Lawrence and later, Saugus. He worked on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston selling cars and, in 1939, sold one to a millionaire named Nathan Daniels. Daniels turned around and gave the elder LeSaffre $3,000 to start the Melrose business.
Robert C. LeSaffre first sold Reos, DeSotos and Plymouths in what was described as a one-man show. The business grew steadily, and once Bob and brothers began coming into it, Daniels LeSaffre took off.
The first car Bob LeSaffre sold was a 1950 DeSoto, a line named after Walter Chrysler's son-in-law. The buyer was a Dr. McNamara, who worked at what was then Melrose Hospital.
On a late summer day recently, the LeSaffre showroom included a beautiful 2005 PT Cruiser convertible with all the options. Dr. McNamara would have liked that one, too.
Bob LeSaffre lives on Arthur Road in Wakefield's Greenwood section. Three relatives live in Greenwood as well: Brother Don is a Forest Street resident, son Stephen lives on Fell Street and daughter Suzanne lives on Pine Street.
Daniels LeSaffre would always have the showroom's front windows painted, advertising such things as zero percent financing and $2,000 rebates, roughly six times a year. Melrose residents would come in wondering when the window signs would change. There was always a Christmas scene, which was especially popular. Bob, a Boston College graduate, would make sure that each year the dealership advertised its fall kick-off sale in maroon and gold paint.
The LeSaffre lot, which is being eyed by Walgreens for a possible Melrose site, had as many as 250 new and used cars on it at the height of business. In fact, the LeSaffres had to buy an old Pontiac dealership on Upham Street just to store vehicles.
"The highlight for us will always be the fact that we were able to bring up our kids in this city and that the people of Melrose have been wonderful to us. We've received cooperation from every city department and they've always been kind to us. We'll never forget them. But I'm 73 years old and I've had enough of working 60 hours a week. We just had to retire. It's the only business I've known and we loved it so much we all came into it," Bob LeSaffre concluded.
October 7, 2005