By JOHN T. WARD
Born in the Great Depression, and illuminated in recent decades by a bold ribbon of neon signage at a gateway to Red Bank, Rassas Pontiac both rode and symbolized the ever-rising fortunes of postwar America.
Round-shouldered sedans and coupes once crammed its showroom. Then muscle cars. Minivans. SUVs.
But now, the auto giants are in retrenchment. A few years back, General Motors scrapped the Pontiac line, leaving Rassas to switch over to Buick. Few car dealers can survive selling Buicks alone, said business owner Aaron Rassas: his is one of only two such shops in all of New Jersey, and 30 nationwide. But he failed in his efforts to land a second brand, as GM tries to right-size markets it considers overfranchised.
With that, and the approach of his 70th birthday, Rassas has decided to shut off the engine.
On April 26, after 83 years of selling new and used cars in Red Bank, Rassas Buick will go out of business.
Rassas informed his staff of 19 employees last Thursday, and though there were signals that the end might be near, the news still landed with sadness. Many of those staffers have been on the lot for two decades or more. A joke around the lot is that “you either work here a week or two, or you work here 20 years,” Rassas told redbankgreen Wednesday.
“I’ve been coming here every day for 39 years,” said body shop manager Sprat Clark, 66, of Shrewsbury, whose father, Thomas, also worked at Rassas.
Aaron Rassas, of Rumson, said the business was founded by an uncle, Alex Rassas, who opened a showroom selling what was then the Oakland-Pontiac make of automobiles, at 21 Mechanic Street, in 1930. When Alex died in 1941, his brother Ben Aaron’s father, who had been selling used cars in Eatontown took over.
Ben bought the empty field at 395 Broad Street, facing the foot of Maple Avenue and next to a Mobil filling station, and built a new showroom in 1949. He later acquired the gas station property, now the used-car lot where perhaps a dozen remaining vehicles are displayed.
“Going out of business,” screams a paper sign facing the lot. “No reasonable offer will be refused.”
Aaron started working the showroom in 1964. His father stayed on, productive right up until his death in 2004, just a few days shy of his 95th birthday.
Rassas said he’s glad not to have been forced out of business, or to have failed, and to be able to wind things down on his own terms. He’s pleased that many of his employees have already gotten promises of work elsewhere. And sales are going strong, he said. As word of the closing has spread among customers, some of whom have been dealing with Rassas for decades, they’re coming in to kick the tires one more time and maybe drive one off the lot.
Still. “Sad? Of course,” Rassas said. “It has to be bittersweet. How could it not be? I’ve done this my whole life. It’s the only thing I’ve ever done.”
His wife of 44 years, Marge, has endured as he’s worked six days a week. Now that he’s retiring, his sole plans are to “drive my wife crazy” and visit his four daughters and four grandchildren, he said.
Rassas also plans to sell the one-acre lot, which is assessed on borough books at $2.15 million.