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Saturday, July 12, 2014

Piekarski, Tulley: Recalling a pair of Nashua auto-dealer giants

Dean Shalhoup

One started out on Main Street, the other on Lake Street. One put his name on his products, the other didn’t. But when they became neighbors in a brand-new retail experiment called the New England Automotive Village some 50 years ago, it marked just one more thing that Vincent F. Tulley and Wilfrid J. Piekarski had in common.

The business, civic and auto dealership communities stretching well beyond Nashua recently lost two of their most family-oriented and respected men with the deaths of auto scions Vin Tulley and Wil Piekarski - Tulley on May 12 and Piekarski on July 6, just two weeks after he and Marilyn celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary. She was his “one and only true love,” family said. ...

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One started out on Main Street, the other on Lake Street. One put his name on his products, the other didn’t. But when they became neighbors in a brand-new retail experiment called the New England Automotive Village some 50 years ago, it marked just one more thing that Vincent F. Tulley and Wilfrid J. Piekarski had in common.

The business, civic and auto dealership communities stretching well beyond Nashua recently lost two of their most family-oriented and respected men with the deaths of auto scions Vin Tulley and Wil Piekarski - Tulley on May 12 and Piekarski on July 6, just two weeks after he and Marilyn celebrated their 65th wedding anniversary. She was his “one and only true love,” family said.

You can have your “automiles,” “auto junctions,” “autoramas,” “carlands” and such cutesy monikers more often designed to catch eyes and move inventory than establish – as Tulley and Piekarski surely would have done – trusting, long-term customer relationships.

It’s true that some people panned the late Sam Tamposi’s idea for a centralized “auto village” as gimmicky, especially early on. Not surprisingly, many opponents were neighbors who feared they’d one day look out their windows to a Las Vegas-like scene.

But if anything gave the idea credence, it was the fact that respected businessmen like Tulley and Piekarski were among the earliest to reserve a spot along Graham, Rockne and Marmon drives.

It was one of those “hey, if Tulley and Piekarski want in, it must be legit” things.

Some years ago, a 30-something Jack Tulley recalled summers as a kid of 10 or 11 hanging out at his father’s dealership picking up rags and sponges to dust storeroom shelves and wash cars.

When asked as part of a Telegraph profile who his biggest influence was, Tulley didn’t hesitate. “Certainly,” he said, “that would be my father … without his counseling and tutelage I’d be many years behind my goals.”

At Piekarski’s funeral the other day, daughters Linda Lovering and Judy Swanson recalled with smiles how their dad, despite building several prosperous businesses, one time working as a radar and laser engineer and blessed with uncanny business and people skills, was known to be “technically challenged” when it came to power tools and eschewed cell phones and answering machines, vehemently refusing to possess either.

All that was fine, because Piekarski had perfected a far more important skill: Caring for, protecting, interacting with and being there for not only his six children, 13 grandchildren and three great grandchildren, but the small army of men and women proud to call themselves his employees.

Where he found the time and energy is anyone’s guess, but Piekarski’s pursuits extended far beyond the business arena. Not only was he a top-ranked tennis player, winning more than a few local and regional titles, he was also an accomplished vocalist who played piano, accordion and trumpet, his daughters said.

But trumping all of that was his devotion to his family, they said. Swanson’s voice broke as she thanked her father for “attending all my dance performances,” smiling as she recalled how he loved Frank Sinatra songs and how one of his better known tunes, “My Way,” fit so perfectly how her father lived his life.

Lovering, an accomplished auto dealer in her own right – she and her husband own Nashua’s Lovering Volvo and two other dealerships – said her father refused to let anything get in the way of being part of his kids’ activities.

“He went to great lengths to participate in his children’s endeavors,” she said, smiling as she recalled her love of horses and that even though her father, “a city boy from Chicago,” knew next to nothing about the animals, “he made sure we went horseback riding together.”

Surely my fellow baby boomers remember when the first Toyotas appeared on Nashua’s streets – they were those modified golf carts with tiny “doughnut” tires that we pointed at and laughed from the windows of our rolling American-made arks that seated four people across with room to wiggle.

But Piekarski didn’t care if people laughed; he sensed a sure-fire business opportunity and opened New Hampshire’s first Toyota franchise. He named it Colonial Motors, which joined Tulley, Clyde Garfield, Don MacMulkin and a couple other pioneers in the south end Auto Village.

“Sure-fire” doesn’t begin to describe where Toyota went from there. If he was the gloating type, which I doubt he was, nobody would have blamed Piekarski if years later he went around saying, “Hey, who’s laughing now?”

Meanwhile, down Marmon Drive, Buicks and Pontiacs were all but parading in and out of Vin Tulley’s shop which, like his friend and neighbor at Colonial, was going great guns.

And also like his neighbor, Tulley was building a family-based operation, which in the early 80s blossomed into Tulley Buick-Pontiac-GMC-BMW Company, a mouthful of a name needed to include all the franchises that Jack Tulley and brothers Vin Jr., Mark and Bryan carried at their new Daniel Webster Highway complex.

Meanwhile, Vin Tulley Sr., comfortable that his dealership was in good hands, ramped up his involvement in civic pursuits, of which there were more than a few by the time he slowed down in his 80s.

Early on, Tulley teamed with fellow members of Nashua New Car Dealers Association to throw a Christmas party for kids who were clients of the Salvation Army of Greater Nashua. Recognizable (to us old timers) car-dealer names like Dick Stahl, Andre (Andy) Sirois, Roger Soucy, Don McInnis, Eber Currier, Clyde Garfield and Dick Sexton were there. Guess who played Santa? Hint: He had Nashua’s Chevy franchise.

Tulley spent years on various boards, among them the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Nashua and the PLUS Company. He even agreed to be the target of jokes and playful jabs at a 1989 PLUS Co. benefit roast, a St. Patrick’s Day corned-beef-and-cabbage dinner that was the predecessor of today’s Wild Irish Breakfast.

While it’s safe to say today’s multitude of car makes, models and designs bear little if any resemblance to the vehicles Piekarski and Tulley glided into their brand-new showrooms more than a half-century ago, it’s a good bet that each and every car that rolls off their respective lots to this day carries a little bit of each man’s spirit wherever they go.

Dean Shalhoup’s column appears Saturdays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-6443 or dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com. Also follow Shalhoup on Twitter (@Telegraph_DeanS).