Business and Labor

Alvan Fuller Rode the Automobile Business to the Top

Would you buy a car from this man? Tens of thousands of people did. Alvan Fuller was born in 1878, and he began his working life as a teenager, alvan fuller fbselling and repairing bicycles first in Malden, Massachusetts and later Boston. By age 21, he was dividing his time between racing bicycles, as a way to generate business, and repair and sales. But a trip to Europe that year (1899) opened Fuller’s eyes to the potential of the automobile and he brought two back home with him (the first two autos imported in to Boston).

Fuller was soon hustling up business for the newborn automobile craze and selling vehicles in places like Boston’s Motor Mart. The historic garage you see today was in Fuller’s day the site of a much smaller building that was more working garage than elegant showroom. Fuller soon realized that the future of the automobile was not in the center of the congested city. He set his sights on Brighton, and as he was going into business with the Packard Motor Co., Packard’s Corner seemed an aptly named destination (though it was not named for the car company.) People laughed at “Fuller’s Folly,” built way out in the swamps. But they weren’t laughing for long. Soon they were stampeding to follow in his footsteps.

Over the next 20 years, more than a dozen dealerships sprouted along Commonwealth Avenue on the ‘Auto Mile,’ as it came to be known. Fuller added a Cadillac dealership. Fuller’s genius was anticipating the evolution of the automobile. Hard core gear heads enjoyed the small garages and sales stalls where cars were initially sold. But Fuller saw that the person with thousands of dollars to plunk down for a toy that he used on the weekends would want a more pleasant setting. And, as the population was pushing outside the grimy cities, the auto dealers should, too.

History proved him right, time and again. And as cars began appealing to more people, Fuller pioneered other innovations. He was an early adopter of trade-ins, time payments and the president’s day sale to show off new models of cars. By the 1920s, he was one of the wealthiest men in America, all from anticipating the future of the auto-buying public.

Fuller’s interests were not limited to business. He served as a congressman, lieutenant governor and governor of Massachusetts, defeating the legendary politician James Michael Curley. The toughest decision he faced as governor was whether to pardon Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, Italian-born anarchists convicted of murder. The pair were a cause celeb of the day, with tens of thousands of protesters rallying to support them and asking for clemency or pardon because of irregularities in their trial. Fuller established a commission to look in to the crimes and followed its recommendation, controversial though it was, that the death sentence given the two men should stand. A ‘dollar-a-year man,’ Fuller declined his salary for holding public office, and though his name was occasionally shopped for higher office, by 1930 he was out of politics.

Alvan and son Peter on Horseback at the Topsfield Fair.

Alvan and son Peter on Horseback at the Topsfield Fair.

He did leave a legacy, however, that extends to this day. His Fuller Gardens established at his summer home in North Hampton, N.H., are open to the public. He donated a substantial art collection to the National Gallery of Art and a foundation that bears his name continues to do its work supporting charitable causes in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

His youngest son Peter also gained fame of his own for the outcome of 1968 Kentucky Derby. Peter Fuller’s thoroughbred Dancer’s Image had a terrific run that year, and won the derby. Testing found a banned substance in the horse’s blood, however. Bettors who backed the horse kept their money, but the horse was stripped of the title.

In a series of court cases, Peter argued that the decision was payback because he had contributed one of his winning purses to Coretta Scott King following the assassination of her husband, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.  Martin Luther King had disrupted the Kentucky Derby the year before, protesting Louisville housing conditions for blacks.

“It was just my way of saying, ‘Hell, this was a hell of a guy,’ and I’d say that to any redneck in the world,” Fuller later told an interviewer. He lost the case, but continued as a successful businessman and horseman, though he never returned to the Kentucky Derby.

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