January 19, 2010 at 1:00 am

Laura Berman

End of the road for Dalgleish Cadillac

Family bids final farewell to Detroit's last Cadillac dealership with auction

From left, Keith Dalgleish, Doug Dalgleish Sr., Charles Dalgleish Jr. and Doug Dalgleish Jr. were not happy with having to close their dealership. (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)

In a city founded by a Cadillac, the Dalgleish family sold Cadillacs for 55 years. They sold them to Motown stars and Detroit mayors, to generations of Detroit doctors and lawyers.

The rise and fall of Dalgleish Cadillac is a classic Detroit story of a four-generation family business. For decades, it meshed with the American Dream.

It ends Wednesday, when tools, swivel chairs, 40-gallon bins -- but no Cadillacs -- go up for public auction. After that, the Dalgleish family is up in the air.

"I'll be working on my reinvention," says Keith Dalgleish, 48, the youngest brother.

Nowadays, the Dalgleish men favor moustaches and an air of regret. Closing the Midtown dealership -- the last that sold Cadillacs in the city --was General Motors' idea, not theirs. The bitter pill came June 2, the day after GM filed for bankruptcy and announced the closure of more than 1,000 dealerships nationwide.

"We put 60 people in the unemployment line -- including us -- when we still had paying jobs for people," says Doug Dalgleish Jr., who locked the door to the sales floor on the 55-year-old dealership Nov. 20.

This is a Detroit story, with bitterness, hope and history bound together. If there's anything different about this story, though, it's the promise of a future. Tech Town, the Wayne State University-led business incubator, bought the building. It will become a center for would-be entrepreneurs.

Doug Jr. appreciates Tech Town but not his forced closing. "It's too bad they can't work on the future in another building and let us stay here," he says.

"We had staying power. We could have waited out a tough business environment," says Keith.

Part of the original Cadillac plant complex designed by Albert Kahn in the 1920s, the building features original terrazzo floors shipped from Italy and a hodge-podge of architectural updating. It also has a unique, never-updated elevator -- a kind of moving climbing wall with hand holds and foot shelves that's been there since the beginning.

On Monday, 50-year-old tools were lined up on long tables, like an industrial display at the Henry Ford Museum. For now, Charles Jr., 84, and younger brother Douglas Sr., 81, preside over their firm's last days, along with Doug's sons Doug Jr., 58, and Keith. Their collective memories include founding the auto show charity preview in 1969, when Doug Sr. was president of the Detroit Auto Dealers Association and the $25 tickets benefited the Detroit Goodfellows.

They remember Cadillac hearses driving in for service mid-processional, and the time a Cadillac owner begged them to extract a 6-foot pet python that had crawled deep into the dashboard. The service manager, Marvin Rons, stripped apart the dashboard, then hauled out the snake.

"Hand over hand, one foot at a time," recalls Rons, who started at the original Dalgleish dealership on Grand River in 1960.

They remember Dennis Archer dropping off his Cadillac for service, then turning down a ride downtown. "I'll take the bus," he told Doug Jr., who remembers Archer walking out to Woodward to the bus stop.

Charles Jr. came to work during the 1967 riots, when the dealership was left unharmed. Even at the very end, most of their customers -- 80 percent, they say -- were Detroiters. "Our salesmen had new Cadillacs. They would pick up cars for service, then drop off a loaner at your house."

That era is over, reduced to dozens of barrels and hoists, dollies and bins arranged for sale and to memories made over decades, bitter and sweet.

Laura Berman's column runs in Metro on Tuesday and Thursday and Sunday online.

Old parts are labeled for auction at Dalgleish Cadillac in Detroit. The ... (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)
Christopher "Kit" Dalgleish cleans up one of the shop floors ... (David Guralnick The Detroit News)