Home to Long Island from my first year in college, in 1970, I needed a summer job. I saw an ad in the local paper for a car shuttler, as they were called. A fellow by the name of John Saunders interviewed me. He ran a rental agency called Kinney Car with his brother Joe. My job would be to clean and move cars between locations. I got the job.
At the end of the following summer, I was invited to John’s home in Huntington, N.Y. At dinner, I met his dad, Joe Sr., who launched into stories of the Saunders family’s successful real estate office in Omaha, Neb., in the early 1900s.
The elder Saunders spoke of how he came up with the idea to rent cars — after his car broke down, he paid a friend six cents a mile to use his car to show real estate to clients. He further explained how he opened several offices all over the country and how John Hertz “ripped him off” in Chicago. (I am sure he told me how, but I did not pay attention.)
I asked him to what he attributed his success. “Son, if you rent cars, don’t create too many parking stalls,” he said. “You only need one stall, and that’s for the car you are driving home. If you don’t have a place to park them you are inclined to be more aggressive in renting them when they come back.” I remember that line because I thought it made sense.
It took me several years to realize whom I had been talking to — one of the founders of the entire car rental industry. I had no clue who he was — I just knew him as the nice old dad of my boss. I understand he passed away near my 19th birthday in May 1971.
Joe’s brother, Harris Saunders Sr., went on to start Saunders Leasing System, one of the largest full-service leasing companies of trucks and trailers. He wrote a book about the founding of the rental and leasing industry in 1972 called “Top Up or Down?”
Yet another Saunders, Clarence, is credited for inventing self-service shopping when he started the Piggly Wiggly grocery chain in Memphis, Tenn., in 1916.
John Saunders had been a vice president at Avis. He got that job when his dad sold the Saunders Drive-It-Yourself System to Avis in 1955. John recommended me to Avis as a college job. I completed a master’s degree in broadcast engineering from the University of Pennsylvania but never used it. After college, I went to work for John in Huntington, N.Y.
From those beginnings, I made my career in auto rental and automotive with American International, Avis, Pase Rent A Car, and Sensible Car Rental, among others. I worked under Edsel B. Ford II at both Ford Motor Co. and Budget on Long Island.
I moved from New York to Omaha in 2007. One of the first things I did was to find the building where the industry started, on 1314 Howard St. It’s a parking structure today. I was disappointed to not find a plaque commemorating the significance of the location.
I spent several years doing research in my spare time, but all I had to go on was Harris Saunders’ book and my memories. In the fall of 2010, I approached the Omaha Historical Society, which had no clue of the Saunders history. From that contact, I got a call from the Omaha World-Herald, which wrote a story on how the Saunders family rented the first cars.
Based on the beginning of Saunders’ business, 2016 marked the 100th anniversary of the industry in the United States. One of the buildings the Saunders family used, called the Capitol Garage, is being considered as a national landmark.
As well, in conjunction with the 150th anniversary of Nebraska’s statehood, a plaque is being considered for installation at Omaha’s Eppley Airfield to commemorate the Saunders family and its 1916 Drive-It-Yourself business in downtown Omaha.
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