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This 1924 ad from an Omaha phone book for Saunders Drive it Yourself exhibits the elements of...

This 1924 ad from an Omaha phone book for Saunders Drive it Yourself exhibits the elements of modern car rental. The industry was beginning to thrive, though known more as “drive it yourself” as opposed to “car rental” back then.  

Call this a “garage find” for car rental history geeks — an advertisement for Saunders Drive it Yourself System, generally regarded as the first car rental company in the U.S.  

The print ad is on a page from an Omaha, Neb. phone book from 1924. At that time, the company founded by Joe Saunders Sr. had already been in business eight years.  

By 1924, Saunders Drive it Yourself was thriving, as evidenced in the marketing copy: “Every day and night thousands drive our cars and save money — why not you?” By 1926, the company had expanded to 56 cities.  

Saunders and his brothers sold the company to Avis in 1955. 

The ad was emailed to Auto Rental News by Jay Golden of Omaha, Neb. “The company I work for bought the contents of an old auto repair shop,” wrote Golden. “Mixed in with old Chilton (auto repair) manuals was an Omaha phone book with this ad in it.”  

A few days later, Golden emailed that he’d done more digging and came up with a 1926 phone book that had more car rental advertisements and listings. In their entirety, the ads paint a picture of a blossoming industry. (See all the ads in this photo gallery.)

The 1924 ad exhibits the elements of modern car rental: it offers a variety of models (coupe, sedan, touring, and roadster), identifies business and leisure customers, markets an insurance product, and comes with “free road service.”  

The 1926 phone book features ads for companies such as Rent-A-Ford Co., which rented coupes, sedans, and trucks for moving and delivery. It also offered insurance: “We protect you for breakage to our cars: 25 cents.” 

The Black & White Drive-Yourself Co. came with “no hour charge, and gas and oil free.” It seemingly presaged the insurance replacement market with the line: “If your own car is out of commission or not available for any reason.” 

The 1926 Saunders ad reveals the company had increased to three locations in Omaha.  

The directory listings reveal that although the term “rental” was common, for autos, they were catalogued under Drive-it-Yourself Business. Hertz Drivurself System Inc. has a listing; Walter Jacobs started Hertz in Chicago in 1918. 

There aren’t too many car rental historians, but Jay Golden qualifies. It all started with his first job out of high school washing rental cars. A few years later he had an encounter with none other than Joe Saunders Sr. himself.  

He wrote that a local historian told him that by 1918 Saunders had more cars than the entire rest of the state west of Omaha.  

“By 1926 Saunders was running 100 model T’s in Omaha,” wrote Golden, ruminating on one of the advertisements. “That is a sizeable independent fleet even by today’s standards.” 

Golden has petitioned the city of Omaha for years to put a plaque at 1314 Howard St., the site of Saunder’s first permanent location. The city also owns Eppley Airport, which Golden thinks would also be a fine place for the plaque.  

“They built and opened a new rental garage there and gave it the great name of the ‘North Garage,’” Golden says.  

Clearly, they are not car rental historians.  

About the author
Chris Brown

Chris Brown

Associate Publisher

As associate publisher of Automotive Fleet, Auto Rental News, and Fleet Forward, Chris Brown covers all aspects of fleets, transportation, and mobility.

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