Vernon J. Jones, a former mechanic and car salesman who established the Jones Junction Auto Group in Harford County, which grew to become the largest family-owned retail auto dealership in Maryland, died Monday of complications from Parkinson's disease at his Bel Air home. He was 88.
"Vernon was an outstanding man who always had a smile on his face, and he always wanted to help people and give them a good deal on a car," said Jim Helbert, a former Bel Air resident.
"I bought my first car from Vernon, and he wanted to make a deal. So, when you walked away you felt good, and when he walked away, he felt good. It was sort of their motto," said Mr. Helbert, who now lives in Cumming, Ga.
"He was such a good salesman that he could sell you the wallpaper off a wall. That's how good he was," said a son, Danny Jones, who is president of the Jones Junction Auto Group and lives in Joppa. "He also knew how to read people."
The son of Columbus McVey "Lum" Jones, who became the owner in 1917 of an authorized Ford repair center, and Fannie Mae Boyd Jones, a homemaker, Vernon J. Jones was born in Fig, N.C.
When he was 12, his family moved to Conowingo, where his father established Jones Motor Co., which was a gas station, repair shop and Studebaker dealership.
Mr. Jones attended Rising Sun High School until leaving in 1943 to enlist in the Navy. He served during World War II in the Pacific Theater of operations aboard the USS Landing Ship Medium 181 as a machinist's mate third class in its engine room. He was discharged in 1946.
In 1947, Mr. Jones married Catherine Marie Hash. In 1950, the couple purchased his father's business.
"We started working there as kids. We lived next door to the gas station and there was a used-car lot in front of the fence," said another son, Larry Jones, who is vice president of Jones Junction Auto Group and lives in Bel Air. "There was a bell in the kitchen, so when a car pulled up for gas, it rang, and we'd go out and pump gas."
Mr. Jones was joined in the operation of the business by his wife.
"My father wouldn't have been anything without my mom. She worked full-time on the business side," said a daughter, Beverly Jones of Bel Air.
"He definitely was a salesman. I never went anywhere with my dad that he wasn't passing out his business card," she said. "He had a great sense of humor and loved his job. Every morning when he came in, he spoke to all of his employees, and he'd be here from bell to bell, which was 7 a.m. to 9 p.m."
In 1965, Mr. Jones, who had acquired a Plymouth franchise, moved the business to the old Bel Air firehouse, where it began selling Honda 90CC motorcycles.
With the business expanding, Mr. Jones moved again to the 300 block of Baltimore Pike in Bel Air, and in 1973, relocated to the business' present location at Bel Air and Harford roads.
Bob Callahan, the former Bel Air radio and TV personality, gave the auto dealership its present name because of its location at the "junction" of U.S. 1 and Route 147.
In addition to Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Dodge Ram trucks, the dealership sells Hyundai, Kia, Nissan, Subaru and Toyota automobiles.
Mr. Jones and his wife built the business from a two-person operation into Jones Junction, the largest family-owned retail automobile dealership in the state. It employs more than 600 people.
"He had respect for both his customers and employees. One day, he took us out front and we were looking at all of these cars on the lot," said Larry Jones. "He said, 'You're not in the car business, you're in the people business. The people who work for you and the people who come through the door.'"
Customer service has long been a hallmark of the Bel Air dealership.
"It was his father who taught him about the value of customer service. So, if you sell cars you need to service them," said Danny Jones.
"He wanted people to be happy and he didn't care what it took, whether the customer was right or wrong," Danny Jones said. "One day, a man who had purchased a car two weeks earlier came in and said his wife didn't like the color. Dad told him to go down the line and pick out one that she'd like and he'd take the other one back."
Mr. Jones retired about a decade ago but still served on the company's board.
In 1985, Mr. Jones and his wife purchased Inwood, a 21-room Colonial revival that had been built in 1914 for John Evans, a cashier for Harford National Bank. It was surrounded by three acres and had fallen on hard times. The couple restored the house, which became Harford County's first Decorator's Show House two years later.
"Mr. Jones, an automobile dealer, has installed one sentimental addition to the restoration," observed The Baltimore Sun in a 1987 article. "It's a piece of stained glass decorating an archway in the home's sun room that depicts Mr. Jones' first car sale, a Studebaker dating from 1939."
The Morning Sun
Last autumn, the couple moved to the Avondale retirement community in Bel Air.
"He was a great man," said Todd Holden, a longtime friend who was an Aegis reporter and photographer. "He and his wife volunteered countless hours at the old Fallston General Hospital."
Mr. Jones and his wife enjoyed traveling across country in their motor home and spending winters in Florida. He was a fan of bluegrass music and reveled in practical jokes.
He also liked spending summers at a family cabin on the Susquehanna River, where he taught family and friends boating skills, water skiing and fishing.
He was a member for more than 40 years of Oak Grove Baptist Church, 2106 Churchville Road, Bel Air, where funeral services will be held at 10 a.m. Thursday.
In addition to his wife, two sons and daughter, Mr. Jones is survived by his sister, Marie Lower of Wilmington, Del.; five grandchildren; and eight great-grandchildren. Another daughter, Cathy Jones, died in 1963.