Thursday, April 26, 2007

1946: first airport car rental

Warren Avis died two days ago at the age of 92.

Avis was born in 1915 in Bay City, Mich., where his father was in the lumber business. He investigated auto dealerships for the state of Michigan and became a salesman for a drug company before joining the Army Air Forces.

He was a major during World War 2, serving both as a bomber pilot and an intelligence officer. When he landed in various locations around Europe, he had the urge to explore, but was initially stymied by the lack of local transportation. He solved the problem by stashing a motorcycle in the bomb bay of his plane.

Back home after the war, Avis bought an interest in a Ford dealership in Detroit, and often traveled by air. He realized that air travel would quickly become more popular than train travel, and decided to open car rental centers at airports. He figured thousands of airline passengers would need rides. The idea for the car-rental firm came from wanting to give "the customer an option I never had as a traveler." In 1946, when Avis opened his first Avis Airlines Rent-A-Car facilities in Florida and Michigan, competitors were in downtown garages.

“Nobody thought it would work,” Avis said in 1987. “There was incredible trouble. You had to get all the airlines to cooperate... Where did you put the cars?” It did work. Cars were parked outside airport terminals, and customers soon figured out the new system.

Avis's idea proved successful and his business grew quickly. Airports in New York, Chicago, Dallas, Washington, Los Angeles and Houston were soon serviced by car rental franchises licensed to use the Avis name. Avis used his WW2 flyer contacts to establish relationships with airports and airlines, rented new cars while competitors offered only used cars, offered a company credit card, and hired pretty young women to staff the airport counters when most flyers were businessmen.

By 1948, Avis was nationally known. In that year, the company dropped the "airlines" designation from its name, and expanded operations beyond airports to serve urban hotels and businesses. During the next six years, Avis also expanded internationally to Canada, Mexico, and Europe. Warren Avis sold the company in 1954. After 10 years of operation, Avis was second in size only to the much older Hertz — a fact the company would later promote in advertising with the tagline, “We try harder.”

Today, Avis operates in over 4,000 locations in 114 countries. (info from Avis, Funding Universe, NPR, Los Angeles Times, The State; car photo from TVHistory)

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