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Griffin Motors, nexus of NASCAR, Oldsmobile, and mid-century car sales, added to National Register of Historic Places

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Image courtesy Google Street View.

Throughout the summer of 1950, residents of Florence, South Carolina, couldn’t help but notice a certain new Oldsmobile constantly driving around town, painted up to advertise both a new dealership on North Irby Street and the inaugural 500-mile stock-car race in nearby Darlington. That closely intertwined relationship between NASCAR and Griffin Motors would last for decades and provide reason enough for the dealership’s recent addition to the National Register of Historic Places.

“I’m just glad the building survived, number one,” said Marshall Griffin, who up until recently owned the Griffin Motors building. “And now through the registry, it’s gonna survive another 60, 70 years.”

While the Griffin family bought into an Oldsmobile franchise on Florence’s Front Street sometime in the late 1930s or early 1940s, Robert “Bob” Griffin decided about a decade later to build a larger 12,000-square-foot showroom on the corner of North Irby and Darlington Streets.

“Prior to this time, car dealerships would often have only a couple cars in a showroom,” according to the National Register of Historic Places application form for the building. “Buyers could drive these cars, but they ultimately ordered the vehicle from the manufacturer and had it shipped to the dealership. At the end of the 1940s, there was a shift in the way cars were bought and sold. Vehicle manufacturers began shipping larger quantities of vehicles to dealerships so that they could be sold off the lot. It suddenly became vital for a dealership to have the space to showcase these cars.”

Photo courtesy Griffin Motors Racing.

Bob Griffin knew the value of publicity. Not only did he choose a high-visibility section of Florence in which to place his dealership, he also chose a modern design with plenty of glass to showcase the cars inside and a tall pylon lettered with the Oldsmobile name.

He also shared an interest in stock-car racing with his sons, Bobby and Tommy, and saw how it could benefit the dealership. That interest started with the establishment of the Southern 500 in Darlington. The Griffins not only advertised the race with the aforementioned 88, they also sold tickets to the race from their dealership, and were the first to register a car for the race — then later grew into a full-fledged racing team, one that employed the likes of Buck Baker, Fireball Roberts, and Lee Petty.

“My Uncle Bobby, was the one who really loved the racing part,” Marshall Griffin said. “He’d order cars through Oldsmobile, then deliver the cars to the other team owners, and instead of making a ton of money selling the car, he’d just ask the team owners to put the dealership name on the hood. That was a pretty good deal he had going on until 1954, when Carl Kiekhaefer came in with his new concept of team ownership.”

According to Marshall Griffin, one of the few remaining Modified Sportsman cars from NASCAR’s first seasons — a 1949 Oldsmobile 88 known as the “roaring relic” — came from Griffin Motors, specifically built for that division by Bobby Griffin. That car now resides in the museum at Darlington.

Griffin Motors retained the Oldsmobile franchise until 1962, amid a dispute with General Motors. “In 1960, GM began making sweeping changes to how dealerships purchased the year’s vehicles,” according to the application. “Essentially, the company required dealers to sell all of the previous year’s stock before receiving the next year’s vehicles. This requirement often resulted in major losses for the dealers as they would have to sell the year-old vehicles at a loss.”

The Griffin family held on to the building, however, and began to lease it out to other companies, among them a Volkswagen franchisee that ran a dealership out of the building throughout the Seventies. “It’s been some type of used-car dealership off an on since then,” Marshall Griffin said. It even, at one point, housed a sort of museum dedicated to Griffin Oldsmobile and the Griffin racing team. “Dad saved literally about everything.”

At least, it remained a dealership-slash-museum until this past August, when Marshall Griffin sold the building to Adams Outdoor Advertising, which has promised Marshall Griffin that it will restore and preserve the building.

“It needed a lotta maintenance and TLC,” he said. “Most of the time, people aren’t interested in restoring an old building because it’s a lotta extra work, but this company even plans to replicate the Oldsmobile font for the pylon for their own company name.

“My ultimate goal in selling the building is to see it in better condition than it is now.”

The National Parks Service added the building to the National Register of Historic Places on October 5. While registry status does not automatically prevent a building’s owner from demolishing or substantially altering the building, it does pave the way for historic tax credits toward restoring the building.