In the life of man, it’s a biological milestone. Difficult to achieve but not impossible.
In the life of a business, it’s a legacy, a reputation nurtured for the better, across decades of change its owners can’t always control. Difficult to achieve, but not impossible.
The King family has proven that, helping put Anniston, surrounding counties and later much of the entire state on wheels since 1922.
Running the show these days is Patricia M. “Patty” King, daughter-in-law of one of the company’s founders, E.D. King Sr. His son, her late husband, put the company on Alabama’s business map for far more than Fords.
Her first thoughts about the dealership’s milestone turn to the customers who have made it all possible.
“It’s a dream come true — when you look back on our history in this community, you realize we have had a customer base for 100 years that trusted us, wanted to come in, buy our products, trusted us to service and sell these products,” King said.
The Ford dealership is the second oldest Ford franchise continuously operated by the same family in the state of Alabama and the eighteenth oldest Ford franchise continuously operated by the same family in the United States.
“It’s hard to put into words the loyalty and faith our customers have had in us. We are thankful for loyal customers and the good will of this community,” King said.
On April 7, 1922, a full page ad ran in The Anniston Star, announcing the new King-Wheeler Motor Company.
The new firm would be a merger between the J. C. Wheeler Motor Company and the Oxford Motor Company.
The merger involved principals E. D. King, J. F. King and J. C. Wheeler, and it created the King-Wheeler Motor Co., a franchise dealer for Ford vehicles.
“Announcement of great interest to owners of Fords,” proclaimed the advertisement, which advised readers that both King and Wheeler had been “in the Ford business for a number of years” and claimed that the new combination assured “the trade of the best and finest service available.”
The franchise, which sold cars and tractors, was located at 110 East 11th St. in downtown Anniston. The name of the business was changed in early August 1926 from King-Wheeler Motor Company to King Motor Company, according to an Anniston Star article about the change. Gerald King was president of the corporation and his brother and partner, Ed King, was vice president and secretary, the article stated.
In the early 1950s, the leadership of King Motor Company transitioned from that of E. D. King, Sr., known as a meticulous, organized businessman to E. D. King, Jr, the energetic promoter with the magnetic personality. E. D. King Sr. became president and major shareholder in Anniston National Bank, the original predecessor to what is now Regions Bank.
Under the leadership of E. D. “Sunny” King Jr., Sunny King Ford became a household name through the power of print and electronic advertising and promotion at every opportunity. NASCAR-related promotion was constant through sponsorship of successful drivers including Bill Elliot, Donnie Allison and Ken Schrader.
In 1971, Sunny King Ford expanded dramatically when it built a showroom, shop and other facilities at 1507 South Quintard Avenue.
This would prove to be the beginning of continued expansion from 1971 through 1989 through product lines, too, with the addition of Honda, Chrysler Plymouth, AMC-Jeep-Renault, Isuzu, Subaru, Yugo, Daihatsu, Hyundai, Volvo, Sterling, Pontiac-Cadillac-GMC and Toyota franchises.
Additional Honda franchises were opened in Auburn, Alabama and Sylacauga and Acura franchises were located in Hoover and Huntsville. E. D. King, III and Henry L. King continue to operate the Auburn Honda franchise and the Hoover Acura franchise, respectively, to this day.
E. D. King Jr. became widely known as a community leader. His many accomplishments included Time Dealer of the Year for the state of Alabama (1988), Anniston Star Citizen of the Year 1988 and an invitation to join the national Honda Dealer Council.
Charitable contributions and support of local community service organizations were always a focus of E. D. King Jr., and his organization. Knox Concert Series, Northeast Alabama Boys and Girls Club, JSU Foundation, Rainbow Omega, Salvation Army, United Way, Cerebral Palsy Center, CAST, Alabama Baptist Children’s Home and numerous schools, churches and local charities have benefited from this long term generosity.
Notable annual events such as the Sunny King Charity Classic, the Woodstock 5K and the Sunny King Criterium continue to receive regular funding from the Sunny King Automotive Group organization.
On Sept. 11, 1990, Sunny King died after a brief battle with cancer. Patricia M. King became the third successive King to assume the leadership role of the organization, taking control during a difficult business and legal environment. In 2015, John T. Bryan, Jr. became the fourth President of King Motor Co., Inc. and the first person not named King to assume that position.
Through the leadership of Patricia M. King and John T. Bryan, Jr., the Sunny King Automotive Group organization was able to regain its footing, in part by divesting itself of franchises experiencing marginal performance and focused its financial resources and management talent on the Ford, Honda, and Toyota.
New facilities were constructed for Sunny King Honda (2002) and Sunny King Toyota (2006) in Oxford, Alabama. A major renovation to the 1507 South Quintard facility was undertaken and completed in 2013.
Patty King, chairman of the board of the Sunny King Automotive Group, was reflecting on the upcoming 100th anniversary on a recent morning in her office at Sunny King Honda.
“The significance of this occasion, oh my gosh, it’s kind of overwhelming,” King said.
“We look back and try to document 100 years, and we’ve done a lot of research trying to do that, you can’t begin to honor the thousands of people who’ve been loyal to this company over our 100-year history,” she said.
King said that often longevity in the auto business is attributed to being resilient.
“Can you imagine the changes necessary for success, startups last maybe five years, so when you think of 100 years, it’s amazing,” King said.
King said Henry Ford started making the first Fords in 1903 — just 19 years before the dealership in Anniston opened in 1922.
“The changes that have come along in 100 years, mass production — Henry Ford didn’t have any of that. You think of how far we’ve come in 100 years in the auto industry, and then they’re telling us now that the next 10 years are going to produce almost as much change in the auto industry as we’ve had in 100 years,” King said.
Those changes King alluded to include autonomous vehicles — they propel and guide themselves, partially or totally — and the transformation from the internal combustion engine to the electric vehicle.
“We’ve got to have a country that’s going to have that infrastructure to even begin to accommodate the changes,” King said.
A heart for the community
“Historically, the King organization has always been generous; we live here, we’re a part of the community. The King family has always had a sense of place. It’s the right thing to do,” King said about the charitable side of the business.
“I think the generosity is throughout this community, but Sunny did a lot of goodwill as branded advertising, racing and then the King classic,” King said, referring to the annual Sunny King Charity Classic which will celebrate its 43 rd year this September. The golf tournament benefits local charities that King said is at the heart of the King organization.
“Since then, we have continued that spirit of giving through the Sunny King Criterium. What’s good for us has to be good for the community, a spirit of giving back, that’s always been a part of the King organization,” King said.
A multitude of franchises
At one point, the Sunny King organization included more than a dozen dealerships. King said the last franchise acquisition Sunny King Jr. made was Toyota in 1989; he died in 1990. “He acquired the Honda franchise in 1976 located on South Quintard,” King said. King said Sunny King Toyota was built next door to the location of the Honda dealership at that time.
“When Sunny died, there were 13 franchises in Anniston, Auburn, Birmingham, Sylacauga, Huntsville. Sunny was in many ways a one-man show. There was no one who could replace Sunny,” she said.
After Sunny King’s passing the business was scaled back. “After Sunny’s death, we couldn’t stay in racing, we couldn’t operate dealerships all over the state. John Bryan, our president and I, made the decision to divest of marginal franchises and keep the best,” King said.
Today, E.D. King III operates King Honda Car World in Auburn and Henry King — Sunny King’s sons — operates King Acura in Hoover. “The two dealerships in Auburn and Hoover, and Sunny King Ford, Honda and Toyota in Anniston are all the dealerships the King family operates now,” she said.
Patty married Sunny in 1969 and she has very fond memories of the man who helped build the dealership into what it is today. “Sunny had such a great joy for life, he loved people, if it was happening, he wanted to be a part of it, he never wanted to be on the sidelines, he wanted to be involved in everything,” King said. “He genuinely loved people. His joy and zest in life was contagious and a pleasure to be a part of,” she said.
When her husband died, King said, “None of this should have worked, and yet here we are in 2022”, referring to the continuation of the organization.
“It’s really God’s grace that we’ve survived and that we have thrived. You have to say God’s grace, there is simply nothing else to explain why this worked, so thanks be to God. We have always been people of faith and our faith has certainly been tested,” King said.
“I would not wish those years following Sunny’s death on anyone. For now, we have an amazing story to tell, and everyone loves a happy ending,” she said.
And as for the next 100 years?
“I don’t know how many more years I will be involved. Still this is what we do, we are in the car business,” she said.
“When Sunny died, we didn’t reinvent anything, we just kept the best that we could run successfully. You must be willing to change.” King said.
King reflected on the newest issue to plague dealerships, the scarcity of microchips. “You pass by any dealership and see there are few cars for sale, we almost have more customers than we have inventories. It’s affected every dealer in the country. They keep saying by the end of this year it’s going to be better. We’re at the mercy of chip manufacturers. We perfected the chip, but we don’t manufacture the chip. I think that’s the problem in our country right now,” she said.
“Now, everything is so technologically advanced, the microchip is needed in almost everything we use every day,” she said.
John T. Bryan Jr., 66, has been with Sunny King since 1985, Sunny having hired him from the law firm of Wilson, Pumroy and Bryan. Bryan knew all the issues to address after Sunny’s death and he respected Sunny’s operational style.
“I’m honored to be the fourth president and the only president not named King, so that’s quite an honor for me,” Bryan said.
Bryan said the 100th anniversary of Sunny King Ford is a tremendous milestone that very few car dealerships can boast.
“This has required the efforts of multiple generations of the King family, we always tell our customers we’re going to be here, you can count on us, and this is evidence of that, we’ve been here 100 years, so if you’ve been our customer for the last 100 years we’re still here,” Bryan said with confidence.
When the Ford dealership underwent a renovation around 2013, a Ford company executive told Bryan that Sunny King Ford was the second-longest running Ford franchise operated by the same family in the state of Alabama and the 18th-longest running family-owned Ford franchise in the country.
Bryan credits the longevity of the business to the King family.
“For them it was more than just a business, it was an institution, it was an institution that made the Anniston area a better place to work, live and raise a family,” Bryan said. “If you look at what they have survived, it is truly impressive, you start with the Great Depression.”
“I can not imagine being in the car business in 1929, can you even visualize that, and then you jump forward to 1939 and you’ve got World War II, and yeah, it shuttered for a while, that’s our understanding,” Bryan said.
Bryan said the Ford factory itself shut down during the war because materials that were made to make cars were repurposed for the war effort.
“We didn’t have any cars to sell,” he said.
“And then you jump forward to 1973 and you had the Arab oil embargo. Those gas guzzling, six to eight miles per gallon eight cylinder massive engines and all of the sudden the focus changed,” Bryan said.
Bryan said that vehicle factories can’t retool and build small cars overnight.
“An automotive factory like Ford, they just can’t shut down one year from building massive gas-guzzling vehicles and start building four cylinder cars,” Byran said.
Bryan said that Sunny King Jr. had the vision and the wherewithal to establish a Honda dealership in 1976 to sell the economical albeit unfamiliar vehicles.
In more recent years, the COVID-19 pandemic affected the business.
“And you have a situation like COVID, do you lay off,” Bryan asked.
“For a while there it was a concern because the showrooms were empty, nobody understood COVID, I didn’t understand COVID,” Bryan said.
Bryan said there was a small downsizing to deal with the effects of COVID but no reduction of pay for employees.
“We tried to manage it as best we could without those draconian-type steps,” he said.
Bryan said the business model at Sunny King is one that spans generations of customers.
“We don’t want to sell you a vehicle — we want to sell you every vehicle you’ll ever buy for the rest of your life. We want to sell to your wife, we want to sell your father, your mother, your son, your daughter, your sister, your brother, your uncles, your aunts, your grandfather, your grandmother, we can’t do that if we take advantage of you, so that is our approach to business,” he said.
“We’ve been successful largely attracting and maintaining people who come back time after time after time to purchase their vehicles from Sunny King Automotive group, we’ve been very fortunate in that regard,” Bryan said.
Decades ago a display visible from the southern end of Noble Street used large painted stones to spell out, “Watch the Fords go by King.” The signage adorned the hillside across from where Cooper Chevrolet is currently located, according to the book Annie’s Town by Tee Morgan.
Morgan’s book mentions that there was man who painted the stones annually for the dealership, using a mixture of sorghum syrup, lime and other ingredients that gave them a somewhat luminous appearance and high visibility.
“Your north-south travel was on Noble Street. They’d be able to see it from Noble street [with] no distracting buildings,” Bryan said.
The man in the plaid coat
Bryan remembers Sunny King Jr. as a flamboyant promoter who had a magnetic personality and would often wear a plaid coat.
“When he walks in a room the focus becomes him, not because he made it that way, but that’s the kind of personality he had,” Bryan said.
Bryan said King Jr. was a promoter and an advertiser.
“He was constantly promoting his business, his community, everything … I think of all the times he just lit up over the prospect of getting on TV to sell vehicles,” he said.
“He was good at it, people say the plaid coat was kind of a calling card,” Bryan said, “But you can come to work here and sell a car the first day and he would go out there and shake your hand and know your name, just right away, just incredible personable skills.”
“He could promote anything … he was outstanding at it,” he said.
Bryan said that the elder King, E.D. King Sr., was more of the typical and organized “to a T” businessman.
Tony Russell, Sunny King Ford general manager, knows a few things about Ford’s iconic brands that have made a mark in society.
Russell said the F-150 pickup truck is the best-selling truck for 44 years and counting.
“It’s built on reputation,” Russell said about the F-150, adding that generations of drivers have bought the truck.
“I can tell a difference when I drive when I drive an F-150 compared to other trucks,” Russell said.
“I would say the reputation of the F-150 has been so well and dominating ’til it just made a difference in today’s society,” he said.
Another iconic mainstay of the Ford line is the stylish Mustang, Russell said.
And it doesn’t have to be a roaring-out-the-gate sports version, either. From an economic standpoint, Russell believes, the average person can buy one.
“The average person can come in and afford it, and then the fame and fortune people can definitely get out there and purchase it as well, it’s just been a popular car,” Russell said.
Russell said the Mustang is the only traditional passenger car Ford has in production. There’s no more LTD, no more Crown Vic, no Taurus, no Fusion.
“Don’t know how long and don’t know if that will be forever, but for now, that’s all we know they will build,” he said.
Russell misses the well-built Ford Taurus that was replaced by the 500.
“When the 500 came out, it kinda confused customers with the 500 and the Taurus, same price point, really the same vehicle, and I felt like that damaged the Taurus name a little bit,” he said.
“They were built to last,” Russell said about the Taurus.
Due to the supply chain issues and microchip shortage, the car market today is unlike anything most people can remember.
People who bring in relatively new cars, in good condition, to be serviced in the King shop might find a dealer representative making them an offer.
“We have vehicles now that people bought in 2019, at MSRP [Manufacturer’s Suggested Retail Price], we will give them MSRP back today, to buy it,” Russell said.
Russell is a lifelong Ford driver, he said.
His first car was a Ford Festiva that he kept for six months but the impression of the brand was indelible.
“That purchase has made me a Ford guy for life,” he said.