Hampton car dealership is hooked on classics

By Angeljean Chiaramida

New Hampshire Business Review, Friday, April 18, 2003

Reprinted with permission of the New Hampshire Business Review

Fred Miller and Henry Marsh, co-owners of Hampton Motor Company, pose near a 1964 Ford Mustang. (Photo by Jodie Andruskevich)

Fred Miller has spent 45 years of his life doing two things he loves, raising his family and selling classic cars.

If you travel frequently along Route 1, you've probably noticed dozens of great old cars parked smartly in front of Hampton Motor Company in Hampton Center. If you think the lot outside holds treasures, wait till you walk inside.

At the time I visited, a big block '67 Corvette sat nestled near a '56 Thunderbird; a '70 E-type Jag rested beside its older brother, a '55 140 Jaguar open roadster; a yellow '47 Mercury 8 glowed among black sedans from the '30s; Packards dozed beside Chryslers; a '60 Metropolitan resided close to a magnificent 1929 orange and black boat-tail Auburn.

It was enough to boggle the mind with sheer wonderment.

These legends from the archives of motoring history and others sat shining for all to enjoy or buy, parked only inches away from each other in the showroom and service bays of what had been a Pontiac dealership. About 300 people a week stop by to browse, said Miller. Few can walk away disappointed; there are transportation museums that would love to have some of Miller's gems.

Prior to moving to Hampton, Miller's historic inventory was in an old trolley barn off Route 27. He has another cache of classics at his site in Palmer, Mass., outside Worcester.

Where does Fred Miller get all these wonderful cars? Though he used to go to auctions as often as once a week, he doesn't have to do that anymore.

"I used to travel all over the country following up a hundred leads to buy one car," he said, "but these last few years have been easier. We've built a good reputation. Now they find us, thank God."

A longtime Hampton resident, Miller was born in Amesbury, Mass., and raised on a farm in Kensington. He was the baby of the family, with "lots of brothers." Farm life gets kids in vehicles early, and one of his brothers gave Miller his first car in 1948.

"It was a 1932 Chevrolet," said Miller. He still has it and doubts he'd ever sell it.

Miller started in the classic car business in earnest in 1952, when he purchased his first one for resale, a 1941 Lincoln Continental. He just kept going from there. "I've never done anything else," Miller said.

He's never owned a normal dealership franchise. "I've bought out many dealerships," he said, "but I've never had one."

An admitted "Ford nut," Miller's stock in Hampton is pretty eclectic. When I was there the newest car on the lot was a big 1985 Caddy, and the oldest was the Auburn. There were goodies in-between.

"We do very well in cars of the '30s, '40s and '50s," Miller said. "In the past we had a 1934 Packard that belonged to Roosevelt during the early years of his presidency. That's gone now, but there are some great looking Packards still available."

In Miller's care at the time was a black 1941 Packard waiting for a new home. Not for the faint of heart, the price tag was $37,500. Prices ranged from about $7,000 to more than $60,000. Miller estimated about half his buyers are car enthusiasts looking for a less volatile place to invest their money than the stock market, while having the advantage of driving their investment around town to boot. The others just love old cars, he said.

Miller said his usual customers are at least in their 40s, and by far most are male. "For a great many, it's nostalgia," he said. "There's a lot more love for old cars these days. The business is growing."

A benefit in the expansion in the classic car business is that repair work is not the problem it used to be. Miller said it's often easier to get parts for the repairs he performs than getting them for new cars. He pulled a number of catalogs out of his files to prove his words.

Still, proper garaging is the most important thing to have if one is considering buying or investing in one of Miller's cars. "It's everything for these cars," Miller said.

But Miller doesn't advocate making his cars into never-to-be-driven garage goddesses.

"Use 'em," he advised, "that's what they're built for."