SUNBURY — Zimmerman Motors is a 130-year-old family business but the current owner says it isn’t a business forced upon the family.
Robert C. Zimmerman Jr. is a fourth-generation owner-operator. His 33-year-old son, Troy, serves as general manager and is fifth generation.
“We were never pushed to be in the family business,” Robert Jr. said.
“It’s something I always wanted to do,” Troy said.
Zimmerman Jr. joined the business in 1976 after serving in the Marine Corps and later graduating from Susquehanna University. His father, Robert Sr., was a decorated war veteran and Sunbury community leader who ran the dealership at the time.
Robert Sr. bought into what was still known at the time as Zimmerman’s Garage in 1964 when he bought out his uncle, Eugene, and worked side-by-side with his own father, John C. Zimmerman.
Brothers John C. and Eugene Zimmerman became partners in the family garage in 1922, according to an archived Daily Item story. They worked side-by-side with their father, Calvin Zimmerman, who opened the automotive dealership in Sunbury in 1913.
Before the family handled automobiles, Calvin Zimmerman began his legacy crafting and selling buggies, carriages and sleighs beginning in 1889 at a garage in Seven Points. He learned the trade from his own father, Peter.
When Calvin moved the business to Sunbury, his carriage works morphed into an automotive garage at Church and Third streets. He later relocated to Wolverton and Market streets in 1916. There, he lived on the third-level, showcased automobiles on the second-level and had a garage on the ground floor.
The Zimmermans' first line of cars was the Mitchell Automobile: a $2,800, 40-horsepower vehicle. The dealership sold and serviced the line until it was discontinued in 1923. Zimmerman’s later carried the Overland, Reo and Studebakers before receiving a Dodge franchise in 1964. They continue to this day to sell Chrysler Dodge Jeep.
"We sell them by the hundreds," Robert Jr. said. "It's not just new cars. We sell as many used cars as we do new cars."
Zimmerman Motors still uses Calvin’s second site as a service center. Its modern showroom is just a bit further east on Market Street toward the bridge spanning the Shamokin Creek. About 32 employees work at the business.
The rise and fall of automakers, gas shortages and recessions, changing trends in consumer preferences and maintenance methods all challenged dealerships over the past century-plus. Another challenge: The internet.
The online auto market blossomed to the point that Zimmerman Motors sold vehicles a few months ago to customers in Rhode Island and Florida. The out-of-state buyers wanted specific vehicles and found them in Sunbury, Robert Jr. said.
Zimmerman’s moved to embrace the internet when some competitors weren’t yet grasping its potential, Troy said.
“We know the person coming in for a car, that buyer is someone who’s done their research online and they know more information now than ever before. We need to try to cater to that,” Troy said.