Retail

Lewis General Tires is almost as old as the General brand

Bob Ulrich
Posted on September 15, 2015
The original Lewis General Tires store was located in downtown Rochester from 1919 to 1969. This is how the store looked in the 1950s, when General Tire & Rubber was getting into the original equipment business.

The original Lewis General Tires store was located in downtown Rochester from 1919 to 1969. This is how the store looked in the 1950s, when General Tire & Rubber was getting into the original equipment business.

Leon Lewis Sr. received his first shipment of General tires in 1919, the year he opened one of the earliest General Tire & Rubber Co. franchises in the United States.

His dealership was only four years younger than its supplier, which had quickly made a made a name for itself by patenting the oversized General Jumbo. Lewis General Tires Inc. was the first to sell the premium replacement tire in Rochester, N.Y.

Ninety-six years later, it is the oldest General tire dealer in the world. As the General brand celebrates its 100th anniversary, Lewis General Tire continues to service customers in the Rochester area.

It also remains a family owned business. President Craig Lewis is the fourth generation Lewis to run the single-store dealership. He follows in the footsteps of Leon and his son, Richard Sr., and Richard Jr. (Craig’s father).

Even after Continental AG purchased General Tire in 1987, the owners remained loyal. Today, Lewis General Tires sells both the General and Continental brands in addition to several others.

Leon Lewis Sr. founded his namesake tire dealership in 1919. After World War II, he bought out his partners.
Leon Lewis Sr. founded his namesake tire dealership in 1919. After World War II, he bought out his partners.

“They consistently built a quality product for 100 years,” says Craig Lewis, who was named president earlier this year. “You combine that with our service and we’ve got the whole package.

“They’ve always been around to handle the problems we’ve had. They’ve done their part to hold up their end of the relationship.”

Survival of the fittest

William F. O’Neil and his partner, Winfred Fouse, founded General Tire & Rubber on Sept. 29, 1915, in Akron, Ohio. Following the end of World War I, the company was still in the process of building its nationwide network of independent and franchise dealers for the General brand.

At the same time, Leon Lewis traveled to Akron, known as the “Rubber Capital of the World,” looking to partner with one of the tire manufacturers based there. As a teenager, he had left the family farm in Dundee, N.Y., and found work at Hood Tire, a small tire dealership in Rochester. By 1919, he decided it was time to branch out on his own.

Lewis hit it off with a General Tire executive, and was offered his own franchise.

“He was ambitious and he was a survivor,” says Craig.

Survival hasn’t always been easy. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, Lewis General Tire merged with Scanlon Tire, a competitor across the street in downtown Rochester. According to Craig Lewis, there was not enough business for both companies to survive.

“My great-grandfather came from nothing, and now three succeeding generations owe our livelihood to him,” says President Craig Lewis. Tim McInerney, who is married to Craig’s sister, is a commercial salesman in the business
“My great-grandfather came from nothing, and now three succeeding generations owe our livelihood to him,” says President Craig Lewis. Tim McInerney, who is married to Craig’s sister, is a commercial salesman in the business

“My great grandfather later bought him out and we went back to just Lewis General Tires again.”

In 1969, Richard Lewis Sr. decided to move to Henrietta, a Rochester suburb.

“Rochester is one of those cities that experienced a massive suburban sprawl in the latter 20th century,” says Craig. “The store was built to follow the population that moved to the suburbs of Monroe County. Henrietta is directly south of the city and is right in the middle of the county with access to the major highways.

“The goal was to strategically locate a ‘super center’ in the middle of the county. We built our commercial, retail and retread operations all under one roof with enough room to grow. We kept the store downtown until the mid 1980s and then closed it.

“My grandfather had quite a bit of foresight because when he built the store in Henrietta, there was mostly farmland around us. Now it is one of the busiest streets in the county and is covered with car dealers and retail stores.” The dealership performs every retail tire service imaginable, plus complete undercar service; most under-hood services, including transmission repair; and state inspections. On the commercial side, it offers new truck and OTR tires and retreading.

With its strong ties to the past — in addition to the General brand, Craig’s father and uncle, Steve Lewis, are retired but serve as consultants to the business — Lewis General Tires continues to look to the future.

Joseph McCarthy Sr., far left, moved his business to this location in Wilkes-Barre in 1936. He moved it again to the east end of the city in 1962.
Joseph McCarthy Sr., far left, moved his business to this location in Wilkes-Barre in 1936. He moved it again to the east end of the city in 1962.

McCarthy Tire, 85 years

“The establishment of a nation-wide team of fiercely loyal, aggressive, competent and independent dealers enabled General Tire to meet the challenge of making it the unquestioned premium tire producer in the field.” That’s how General Tire described its fledgling dealer network in 1918.

Joseph J. McCarthy Sr. began selling tires for the company in 1926. When a territory opened up in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., in 1930, he decided to strike out on his own, and, as the Depression was getting started, McCarthy Tire Service Inc. was born.

McCarthy’s experience selling truck tires as a General Tire salesman made the decision to become a combination commercial/retail dealer a logical one. The decision coincided with General’s increased involvement in commercial tire manufacturing.

In 1928, General created rubber flaps for truck tires. Two years later, the company began selling a complete line of low-pressure truck tire “balloons,” which positioned the company as a major commercial tire manufacturer.

General Tire President William F. O’Neil wished McCarthy success on the opening of his new store in 1936.
General Tire President William F. O’Neil wished McCarthy success on the opening of his new store in 1936.

In 1934, the General brand was original equipment on International Harvester Co. vehicles. By 1937, General Tire was on the OE list of all major truck manufacturers, which, according to the company, provided “an entrée by General Tire dealers for replacement and retreading sales.”

McCarthy Tire has grown under the guidance of the McCarthy family for three generations. John D. McCarthy Sr. followed his father at the helm; John D. McCarthy Jr. is the current president.

In 2014, McCarthy Tire was the sixth largest commercial tire dealership in the U.S., based on Modern Tire Dealer’s rankings. The company has six Bandag retreading plants, one OTR retreading plant, 43 full-service locations, more than 300 commercial service trucks and more than 900 employees.

McCarthy Tire services consumers and fleets in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, North Carolina and Maryland, with additional commercial service in Ohio. John D. McCarthy III recently joined the company as a salesman in the Philadelphia area.

When Continental purchased General Tire, McCarthy was already selling the Continental brand, “so that meshed well,” says McCarthy Jr.

“Back in the day, General Tire was a presence. They are still a good company to do business with.” ■

Plant obsolescence

In the mid-1940s, the U.S. government faced a critical World War II-related tire shortage. More manufacturing plants were needed, and General Tire & Rubber Co. agreed to help.

It selected a Waco, Texas, site for its second domestic facility. Tire production began there in November 1944.

Eventually, the plant became obsolete, and tire production was phased out. The facility was closed in 1987.

General’s first plant, built in Akron, Ohio, in 1915, was closed in 1982. Subsequent plants in Mayfield, Ky. (1960), Bryan, Ohio (1967), and Charlotte, N.C. (2006), also were shuttered. The company’s sixth plant, equipped for full radial tire production, went into operation in 1973 in Mount Vernon, Ill. It is still in operation.

In 1935, General Tire promoted “blowout proof protection” in an ad in the calendar shown on the left.
In 1935, General Tire promoted “blowout proof protection” in an ad in the calendar shown on the left.

Five more General Tire ‘oldies but goodies’

Here are five more of the oldest General tire dealers in the U.S., courtesy of Continental Tire the Americas LLC and Modern Tire Dealer. The oldest is Lewis General Tires Inc. in Rochester, N.Y.

81 years: Redburn Tire Co., Phoenix, Ariz. J.D. Chastain and Don Leffler, owners. In business since 1934.

53 years: Crawford Tire Service Inc., Beaver, Pa. Kevin Crawford, owner. In business since 1962.

40 years: Cassidy Tire & Service, Addison, Ill. Ahern family, owners. In business since 1914.

35 years: Erie General Tire Inc., Erie, Pa. Chuck Smith, owner. In business since 1965.

30 years: Delta Retail-Wholesale Tire Center Inc., Burton, Mich. Mike Crittenden, owner. In business since 1980.

“We wouldn’t be selling their product since 1934 if there wasn’t some type of relationship,” says Chastain, president of Redburn Tire.

Continental updated the ad in a 100th anniversary calendar.
Continental updated the ad in a 100th anniversary calendar.

Related Topics: 100th anniversary, Continental, General Tire, Lewis General Tire, McCarthy Tire Service Co. Inc.

Bob Ulrich Editor
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