THE HISTORY OF CLAUDE NOLAN CADILLAC
PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE
The year was 1905: the world’s first theater exclusively for motion pictures opened in Pittsburgh; Las Vegas was founded; and an automobile exceeded 100 miles per hour for the very first time. It was the same year that Claude Nolan became a Cadillac Motor Car agent in Jacksonville.Born in Sanford in 1883, Nolan moved to Jacksonville as a child. He graduated from Duval High School and later, Vanderbilt University. In 1905, law degree in hand, he returned to Jacksonville, where his father, George Nolan, served as mayor from 1903 until his death in 1906.Nolan opened his Cadillac Motor Car dealership in a small building on East Church Street and became part of an industry that would grow to be a driving force in the nation’s economy. The Florida land boom was beginning to gather momentum and within a few years the enterprise expanded to occupy a grand, three story dealership on Main Street.This building, built by Nolan in 1910, was designed by Henry J. Klutho, a prominent and prolific Jacksonville architect in the decades following the Great Fire of 1901.The building’s tapestry brick facade was but a foretaste of its opulent interior with Welsh tile floors, inlaid stairways, leaded glass partitions and the mosaic tile Cadillac crest that graced the showroom floor.
Structurally, the edifice boasted the widest poured concrete spans in the South at the time. This much-admired building continued to serve as the Cadillac dealership’s home until 1985 when a new facility was completed on Southside Boulevard.The oldest Cadillac dealer in the South, Claude Nolan was the original source for all things Cadillac.Jack Helmick, president of Claude Nolan Cadillac Inc. joined the company 40 years ago. He became president of the company in 1976 after the death of his father-in-law, Connor Brown.“Mr. Nolan was a member of the original Cadillac ‘Old Guard’. He distributed all Cadillac products east of Apalachicola, Florida and in about 20 counties in South Georgia,” Helmick said. “After World War II, his territory was the largest single distributorship of Cadillac motor cars.”It seemed that everything Nolan touched turned to gold. Even Nolan’s Cadillac dealership on the then-new Biscayne Boulevard in Miami, called “Nolan’s Folly” when it was established, prospered. In the years following World War II, it became one of the largest Cadillac dealerships in the nation.Nolan did much to promote the sale of Cadillacs and true to his pioneering nature, accomplished many firsts.
In 1910, he staged a race at the Jacksonville Fairgrounds between a Cadillac and an early aero plane, the first ever seen in the state. In 1911, he received a trophy for his participation in the Glidden Tours, a national organization that advanced the establishment of highway systems.In the 1920s he became the first person to drive to Key West. Nolan and a friend drove down the Florida East Coast railroad tracks from Miami to Key West accomplishing much of the journey by traveling over trestles spanning large stretches of water. They traveled behind a specially chartered trainload of reporters and newsreel cameramen.Nolan’s installment buying plans, the first of their kind, eventually became the industry standard.“Along the way, Mr. Nolan acquired Pontiac franchises in Miami and Jacksonville and operated a number of automotive trade businesses in Florida and Georgia dealing in Steward Warner, Alemite, Duco, Philco and other products,” Helmick said.Claude Nolan never married, but he looked after his sister, Lila Nolan Peterson and her daughter Claudia after the death of Lila’s husband. In time, Claudia married Connor Brown who joined the family business in 1938. Nolan died in 1943 and was succeeded by Brown as distributor.
“The company continued to operate as Claude Nolan Inc.,” Helmick said.By war’s end, Brown had established Connor Brown Cadillac in Fort Lauderdale, built a branch of Nolan-Brown Motors on Bay Harbour Island in Miami Beach and relinquished the Trail Pontiac franchise in Miami.“In 1965, Connor Brown was the largest Cadillac distributor in the Florida territory,” Helmick said. “That year Cadillac terminated all of its distributor agreements leaving Connor Brown as the Cadillac dealer in Jacksonville, Miami, Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale.”Helmick, a graduate of Auburn University and of the University of Florida College of Law, served as a reconnaissance pilot in the Navy before joining the company in 1965 to assist Brown. Helmick later acquired the Claude Nolan franchise location in Jacksonville and started Claude Nolan Cadillac Inc.During the 1960s and 1970s the company experienced many changes. Brown and George Williamson opened George Williamson Cadillac in South Miami. Williamson later bought Brown’s interest in the dealership.
Claude Nolan Inc. relinquished its Pontiac franchise in Jacksonville in order to concentrate on the growing Cadillac market and dealerships in Miami and Miami Beach were sold.When Connor Brown died in 1976, his wife, Claudia Nolan Brown, took over operation of Connor Brown Cadillac until 1979 when she sold the company.As president of Claude Nolan Cadillac Inc., Helmick has continued the tradition of growth established by his predecessors. In fall 1985 the dealership relocated to its new facility at 4700 Southside Boulevard in the Quality Circle Auto Park.During the “Helmick Years”, Claude Nolan Cadillac Inc. has been presented Master Dealer Recognition 13 times. This auspicious award is given only to the top Cadillac dealers in the United States. The company also was an Oldsmobile Elite Dealer during a 10-year partnership with Oldsmobile before General Motors discontinued the line.“We elected to stop selling Oldsmobiles in 2002 in anticipation of General Motors’ discontinuation of the line in 2004. However, we continue to service the product for orphan owners,” Helmick said. “We also have expanded our body shop in response to increased demand for paint and collision repair services.”
Jack Helmick has served as director of the Jacksonville and Florida Automobile Dealers Associations. He has served on the Zone Cadillac Dealer council several times and one term on the Cadillac National Dealer council. Additionally, Helmick was involved with the Catera Brand Committee when that line was being brought to market.The Helmick years are just beginning. Jack Helmick’s son, Marc and his daughter Allison, joined their father in the family business in 1988.Allison now serves as the public relations director for the company and is in charge of the company’s centennial celebration.Marc is the general manager and, like his father before him, serves on the board of directors of the Florida Automobile Dealers Association.In 2003, the company elected to participate in the Cadillac Image program prompting significant cosmetic improvements to the Southside facility.As of 2004, Claude Nolan Cadillac Inc. reported an increase in volume and continues to be the largest Cadillac dealer between Atlanta and Orlando.
The company supports charitable organizations with events such as the Claude Nolan Cadillac Invitational golf tournament to benefit the National Kidney Foundation of Jacksonville. This amateur golf tournament, scheduled for September, 2005, is one of 130 that will take place across the country. Local winners will qualify to enter the national finals at Pebble Beach Golf Resort in California.Helmick attributes the company’s longevity to having employed some of the best people in the automotive industry; consistent, fair policies; the ability to adapt to the changing automobile market; an outstanding product and unparalleled service.“To appeal to today’s consumer, a car must be attractive, of exceptional quality and built to last,” Helmick said. “Cadillac has achieved these objectives and we at Claude Nolan Cadillac have maintained our commitment to quality, honesty and integrity.“With the dramatic reinvigoration of the Cadillac product line, the company looks forward to a bright future as it embarks upon its second 100 years!”
-Written by: Cari Boyce of the Florida Times-Union