Ascot Imported Cars, Sewickley's fixture in the luxury car market, succumbs to time
Out of gas
November 4, 2010 4:00 AM
A Lotus Evora remains in the almost empty showroom at Ascot Imported Cars in Sewickley.
By Steve Twedt Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It may say a lot, or very little, that Pennsylvania's only Rolls-Royce dealer, Ascot Imported Cars Inc. of Sewickley, closed its doors last month.
The longtime owner, Jan A. Duchoslav, is reportedly ailing and is already well past retirement age. And Sewickley, like many towns across the United States, has had its share of vacated storefronts during the current economic downturn, although Sewickley Chamber of Commerce president Jim Price says business is starting to come back.
"We're going to miss them [at Ascot]," said Mr. Price, who helps run the flower shop Cuttings on Locust Place. "It was a draw, especially when people come to get their car serviced. It's probably one of the few places people could go."
Which raises the question: Where are Pittsburghers now supposed to get service for their Rolls-Royce Phantom Coupe, a car that Edmonds.com lists new at $408,000? The closest dealer is in Dublin, Ohio, just north of Columbus.
Not to worry, says Bill Casey of the North Side, a longtime Rolls owner. "If you can afford a $400,000 car, you can afford to have someone drive the car to get it serviced for you."
Mr. Casey is a member of the International Club for Rolls-Royce and Bentley Owners & Enthusiasts, based just outside of Harrisburg, in Mechanicsburg. The group will hold its annual meeting in Pittsburgh in 2014.
Mr. Casey estimates there are about 75 Rolls-Royce owners in the Pittsburgh area. He owns two himself, a black 1934 Phantom II Touring Saloon and a yellow 1973 Corniche convertible. He refers to Rolls-Royce automobiles as "art on wheels."
"You can't make them better. When my Corniche goes down the road, it makes no noise," he said. Change the oil, add a little grease, make sure the rubber still has wear and it will drive forever -- which may explain in part the business downturn at Ascot.
"These cars are so well made," said Mr. Casey, "they're not coming back for maintenance."
The end of Ascot Imported Cars, after decades of doing business in a two-story red brick building on Walnut Street, was both painfully slow and surprisingly sudden.
Just over a decade ago, Ascot was doing a brisk business, said John Moody, who did body work at Ascot for 32 years. It held the franchise for a variety of high-end, high-power, eye-catching vehicles -- Mercedes, BMW, Bentley, Lotus, Land Rover and, of course, Rolls-Royce.
The Land Rovers were popular among Steelers players. Pirates great Willie Stargell had his Rolls worked on there. Steelers quarterback Kordell Stewart had his car serviced there, too, and took time to chat with the Ascot employees.
Then, beginning 10 years ago, one by one, the carmakers started insisting that they didn't want to share floor space with any other brand and the licenses were sold off to other local dealers. In the end, Ascot offered only two lines, Rolls-Royce and Lotus.
"Those aren't exactly high turnover cars," observed Allan Herbst, who runs the John M. Herbst Inc. auto service and gas station next door with his brother, Jim.
At one time, Ascot had maybe 40 employees and had so many cars to service they had to park some in the municipal lot and plug the meters. When the business closed, it was down to a core group of 10 staff.
"We had known it was coming for a long time," said Mr. Moody, 57. "We all decided to hang in there, due to loyalty, and we were all kind of interested to see what happened."
The end came without forewarning on Friday, Oct. 1, when some attorneys showed up at the shop to say, "This is it." Mr. Moody was upstairs in the body shop, getting ready to paint a set of wheels for a customer.
The staff collected their last paychecks (Mr. Duchoslav and his wife, Doreen, "never missed a pay," said Mr. Moody of the owners he clearly still reveres), then came back the next day and Monday to collect their tools.
Ascot actually has three Sewickley lots, the Walnut Street main showroom and a parcel across the street, and a second showroom around the corner on Thorn Street.
"It was always nice to see a Rolls-Royce sitting there," said Sewickley Borough Manager Kevin M. Flannery, whose office is just a short walk down Thorn Street from Ascot.
He said he still sees one or two Rolls-Royces driving around town each week, the owners apparently fellow residents of the 15143 ZIP code.
Mr. Flannery has heard there's some interest in the property. "Maybe there's an opportunity for somebody to come by and have a better dealership."
For now, though, Ascot Imported Cars presents an incongruous scene: The Walnut Street showroom is nearly bare, except for a shiny orange Lotus Evora beckoning passers-by behind the locked doors. According to Edmunds.com, the car goes for $54,235 to $86,705, depending on the model desired.
Yet, folded and tucked into the showroom doors last week was a termination of service notice from Duquesne Light, threatening to turn off power to the already-darkened building this week unless someone pays the overdue $1,243 electric bill.
Signs on the doors still announce Ascot's hours of operation but offer no information about the closing or contact information for longtime customers.
"It almost looks like the place is still in business," said Mr. Moody. "I honestly believe [Mr. Duchoslav] thought it was going to keep going. I'm sure he's devastated." Phone messages left at the Duchoslav home were not returned.
The closing of Ascot Imported Cars might be a symbol of a rotten economy and its sobering effect on even those of wealth, or it could simply signal the end of a family business that had no heir apparent. Mr. Moody has his own idea.
"We were a special kind of dealership," he said. "You really felt like you were doing something more than just working on cars. It's almost like it became a family."