by Terry Rogers
Recently, an old white building behind the I.G. Burton Chrysler sales office was demolished. As the façade was removed from the front of the building, the words “Milford Motors” was found painted on the brick. Although the demolition of the old building puts an end to Milford Motors legacy in Milford, its unique and fascinating history will live on.
“Joe Webb, Jr. owned and operated Milford Motors, a Ford and Lincoln dealership for about ten years,” Milford historian Dave Kenton said. “The Ford dealership sat where the Davis, Bowen & Friedel offices are located today on the corner of Park Avenue and North Washington Street.”
The first Ford dealership in Milford was owned by Wilson Vinyard and C. Edgar Harrington. They employed another Milford businessman, Bayard V. Wharton, who eventually founded Wharton & Barnard Auto Parts. Wharton, who began his career selling cars at the dealership, was known as one of the top auto salesmen, eventually working with Brooks Ford and Truitt Tractor Company. It is believed that Webb purchased the dealership in the mid-1960s and moved the business to the corner of North Rehoboth Avenue and Northeast Tenth Street, located in the building where Kent and Sussex Tire is today.
Around 1975, Al Gardiner, who moved to Milford with his wife, Gayle, in 1980, purchased the dealership and, in 1989, purchased a large lot on Dupont Highway. In 1994, Gardiner announced that he was building an auto mall, offering cars from multiple manufacturers under one roof. At the time, Gardiner planned to sell Ford, Lincoln, Mercury, Chrysler, Plymouth, Dodge and Toyota. General Motors did not agree to a shared contract. In addition to the auto mall, Gardiner planned to lease commercial space above his showroom, claiming he had three tenants leasing 5,000 square feet, approximately one-third of the space available.
For three years, Milford Motors was the largest dealership in Southern Delaware, selling about 2,000 cars per year with an annual revenue of $5 million. Suddenly, in August 1997, Gardiner announced that he was selling the Chrysler, Plymouth and Dodge operation to I.G. Burton with an undisclosed buyer purchasing the Ford, Lincoln and Mercury lines. He insisted that the sale was simply a way for him to move to St. Mary’s County, Maryland, where he and his wife were originally from but there were hints that things were not going as planned.
“Our first interested buyer, Star Auto Mall, had trouble coming up with financing,” Gardiner said in an interview in 1997. “It’s over a $14 million sale. We couldn’t wait forever. Once you announce your intentions to sell, you’d better sell, or the public starts to lose confidence in the location.” An interim manager, John H. Hanley, was hired for the location under an agreement between Gardiner and Wilmington Trust Company.
Gardiner insisted there was no bankruptcy or credit issue that led to him selling the dealership. He purchased St. Mary’s Motors, a used-car dealership near Patuxent River Naval Air Station, a market Gardiner said he was more comfortable in than the new car market. However, comments made by Charles W. King who was with Wilmington Trust Company indicated there may be some financial difficulties.
“We are working with Mr. Gardiner to resolve the situation,” King said in a 1997 interview. “That may mean selling the dealership. It is open for business selling cars, providing service and honoring all warranties.” Hanley confirmed that they were getting support from Wilmington Trust and that things were “stable.” A year later, it seemed that things were not as stable as Hanley believed.
On March 5, 1998, then-State Attorney General M. Jane Brady announced that she was filing fraud charges against three auto dealerships, including Milford Motors. According to court documents, between 1994 and 1996, Milford Motors, which was out of business by 1998, sold extended warranties it knew were invalid and that Gardiner took a trust fund set up to pay for such warranties. The issue began when Gardiner terminated an arrangement with Dimension, a warranty provider, and agreed to accept liability for contracts he issued in the company name. The company gave Gardiner $125,000 to be used to pay warranty claims but the Attorney General alleged that Gardiner placed the funds in a personal account, not one used by the dealership.
“He then began minimizing expenditures by refusing to pay for claims, telling customers that claims were not covered and telling customers they could not cancel their contracts,” court documents stated. Gardiner vehemently denied those claims stating that he had documents to verify there were no outstanding claims. However, court documents indicate that Gardiner was found guilty of fraud and his appeal was denied.
According to M.J. Lofland at I.G. Burton, they have owned the property and Milford Motors building since 1996 and it housed their Chrysler, Plymouth, Dodge and Ram department. While they were renovating the BMW portion of their building, they used the old Milford Motors building for the BMW department. The building was torn down as it was not longer necessary to support the operation at I.G. Burton.