| Family tradition and an 85-year foundation built on longtime local relationships werenÃ¢Â€Â™t enough to shelter Bell Motor Co. from what might be the hardest economic times in 50 years.|
The business will soon close its doors for good, said Gary Bell Sr., the Leonardtown dealershipÃ¢Â€Â™s vice president.
Falling sales, low consumer confidence, difficult customer financing options because of a growing credit crisis and increasing competition among auto manufacturers are spelling the end of what trade magazines have recognized as the second-oldest continuously open General Motors dealer in the country.
Ã¢Â€Â˜Ã¢Â€Â˜It didnÃ¢Â€Â™t make any sense for us to keep investing in the business when we didnÃ¢Â€Â™t see it going the way we wanted,Ã¢Â€Â Bell said. Ã¢Â€Â˜Ã¢Â€Â˜Frank [Bell Sr., GaryÃ¢Â€Â™s uncle] said Ã¢Â€Â“ heÃ¢Â€Â™s been doing this 50-plus years Ã¢Â€Â“ heÃ¢Â€Â™s never seen [the economy] as bad. ItÃ¢Â€Â™s very emotional because itÃ¢Â€Â™s all weÃ¢Â€Â™ve ever done. I know we can find something else and move on from here.Ã¢Â€Â
The family had been discussing the decision seriously for about a month but made the final call just last week, he said. The family has not pinpointed a specific date to close Bell Motor Co. because it must first liquidate its inventory.
Four generations of the Bell family have helped run the historic dealership. In the early 1920s, brothers Ernest and Webster Bell ran an appliance and tractor company but would go north to buy automobiles and bring them back to St. MaryÃ¢Â€Â™s County, where they would trade them for horses, mules or livestock, according to accounts in county history books. They learned of a new car brand, Chevrolet, and decided to try to sell them, opening the Bell Motor Co. officially in 1923 in Cedar Point. But the company relocated to Leonardtown Square when the U.S. government bought the land on which the car dealership sat to make way for Patuxent River Naval Air Station in 1942. ItÃ¢Â€Â™s been in Leonardtown ever since.
Ernest and Webster Bell continued to run Bell Motor Co. until they died in 1986 and 1987, respectively.
ThatÃ¢Â€Â™s when WebsterÃ¢Â€Â™s sons, Frank Bell Sr. and Tommy Bell, took over the business. Tommy worked up until the day he died last year, leaving his son, Gary Bell Sr., and Frank to run the company as vice president and dealer⁄operator, respectively. Tommy BellÃ¢Â€Â™s other sons, T.W., Andy and Mark, as well as GaryÃ¢Â€Â™s son, Gary Bell Jr., and FrankÃ¢Â€Â™s son, Frank Bell Jr., also work at the dealership. Tommy BellÃ¢Â€Â™s wife, Dot, continues to be involved in the business.
Ã¢Â€Â˜Ã¢Â€Â˜This is what we grew up doing. We enjoyed being around each other,Ã¢Â€Â Gary Bell Sr. said. Ã¢Â€Â˜Ã¢Â€Â˜It was just the norm to work at the dealership. WeÃ¢Â€Â™ve made a good living up until now. For me, having the opportunity to work every day with your siblings ... our familyÃ¢Â€Â™s very close.Ã¢Â€Â
Larry Hills of Great Mills said his family has purchased at least 40 cars over the years from Bell Motor Co. and will miss its personalized service.
Ã¢Â€Â˜Ã¢Â€Â˜IÃ¢Â€Â™ve dealt there personally myself for 51 years. And my father and mother have dealt there for another 18, 20 years. ItÃ¢Â€Â™s a personalized company. ItÃ¢Â€Â™s really a shame to see them go out like that. TheyÃ¢Â€Â™ve helped the community in a lot of different ways,Ã¢Â€Â he said. Ã¢Â€Â˜Ã¢Â€Â˜TheyÃ¢Â€Â™re a very personalized business. IÃ¢Â€Â™ve got a super late-model dirt car that I race, and theyÃ¢Â€Â™re even a sponsor on that. Dot Bell has worked at the hospital. TheyÃ¢Â€Â™re going to really be missed. I donÃ¢Â€Â™t know what LeonardtownÃ¢Â€Â™s going to do without them.Ã¢Â€Â
Ã¢Â€Â˜Ã¢Â€Â˜As far as the town is concerned, Bell Motor Co. is a landmark,Ã¢Â€Â said Leonardtown Mayor J. Harry Norris. Ã¢Â€Â˜Ã¢Â€Â˜ItÃ¢Â€Â™s taking the real essence of downtown away. But weÃ¢Â€Â™ll be able to fill the void Bell Motor left ... My father bought his cars from there, I bought my cars [there] and my daughters buy their cars [there]. ... The Bell family has also always been the backbone of the Leonardtown Volunteer Fire Department. This community relies on themÃ¢Â€Â to answer calls during the day while they work right downtown.
General MotorsÃ¢Â€Â™ recent financial turmoil at the corporate level doesnÃ¢Â€Â™t have much to do with the familyÃ¢Â€Â™s decision to close the business, Bell Sr. added.
Ã¢Â€Â˜Ã¢Â€Â˜I wouldnÃ¢Â€Â™t put the blame on GM. IÃ¢Â€Â™m sure thereÃ¢Â€Â™s things we could have done. Ultimately, itÃ¢Â€Â™s up to us,Ã¢Â€Â he said.
The family would like to be able to sell the business but is unsure yet if itÃ¢Â€Â™s feasible, given the legal hoops it may have to jump through to transfer ownership and other factors, Gary Bell Sr. said.
Ã¢Â€Â˜Ã¢Â€Â˜WeÃ¢Â€Â™d like to give our  employees a chance to work for someone else,Ã¢Â€Â he said. The family is considering other options regarding what to do with the property, which it owns outright.
Both Norris and Hills said the companyÃ¢Â€Â™s closing has larger implications for the region and countryÃ¢Â€Â™s overall economic health.
Ã¢Â€Â˜Ã¢Â€Â˜If someoneÃ¢Â€Â™s as solid as you expect Bell Motor to be, whatÃ¢Â€Â™s next?Ã¢Â€Â Norris said.
Ã¢Â€Â˜Ã¢Â€Â˜The economy out here is in terrible shape. IÃ¢Â€Â™m in business for myself also. ItÃ¢Â€Â™s hurting everyone out here,Ã¢Â€Â Hills said.
But aside from changing economic circumstances, the family has reflected on how the auto industry has changed.
Ã¢Â€Â˜Ã¢Â€Â˜The car business has become more competitive. GM is not as big as they once were. And it wasnÃ¢Â€Â™t the norm to travel 50, 100 miles to buy a car. People went to their local dealer. You never really went anywhere outside of the county,Ã¢Â€Â Gary Bell Sr. said.
Ã¢Â€Â˜Ã¢Â€Â˜We gave a service and people were happy, and theyÃ¢Â€Â™d come to see the new models when they came out. Back in the 1950s, it was big. From Ridge to Mechanicsville, people would come to see what the new Chevy looked like,Ã¢Â€Â Frank Bell Sr. said.