The Willis Dupont, Starter Story
A true story about my adventure with Willis Dupont.
Written 2010 Rewritten 05/11/2016 Unedited
In 1971, my partner Don and I were in the business of rebuilding automotive electrical parts.
The name of our company was A.P.I. and it was located on NW 36th Avenue in Miami Florida. Our company had been in business since 1960 but my partner Don and I had only owned it since 1970. We had bought the company about a year before this story took place.
My partner’s father, Dave, had started the company around 1960 and Don and I had purchased it from Dave’s estate after he had passed away.
One day, in the summer of 1971, my partner Don and I were both standing at our front sales counter, dealing with several customers. We both noticed a very unassuming, light haired, fellow patiently standing by our front door, he appeared to be waiting for something or someone. He didn’t look like our usual type of customer, he was too well dressed to be a mechanic. Standing behind him, was another younger blond fellow, they both seemed to be politely waiting their turn to talk to us.
When all our other Customers had left, my partner Don, asked the fellow if we could help him. I wasn’t paying much attention, as I assumed that they were just going to ask Don for directions, as they appeared to be a couple of guys that were lost in our neighborhood.
They both approached the sales counter and the younger fellow reached into his shirt pocket and produced what looked like a copy of a very old company invoice. It caught my attention so I listened as the older of the two fellows spoke. He chose his words very carefully, and he said, “I had a starter repaired by your company a while ago and I’m having a problem with it.”
My partner Don now had the piece of paper in his hand and I could see he was having a bit of difficulty reading the faded yellowing invoice. It was at that point I became more curious, as I wanted to find out what this guy was talking about. I had always prided myself in our parts rebuilding craftsmanship, and we rarely ever had anyone come back to tell us that one of our parts didn’t work.
I watched as the look on my partner Don’s face changed to a more serious expression. I was already pretty familiar with my partner Don’s facial expressions, I knew the expression, especially when he didn’t understand something. I knew that his face always became wrinkled and it got a pained contorted look on it. So I watched as Don handed the piece of paper back to the older fellow and said, “Sir, this receipt is from 1960, that’s more than 10 years ago. Our guarantee is only good for for ninety days.”
Now, as I watched, I could see the expression change on the older fellows face, he was now getting very serious, and I could see he was thinking very hard of what to say next. I could tell from looking at his face that he thought he was in an obviously embarrassing situation, and he was perplexed as to what to say next to my partner, I kind of felt sorry for him.
I have to admit, this was an extremely unusual, situation, as no one had ever come to us like this before. How could someone expect a ten year guarantee on a repair job, I had to wonder if this fellow was normal, or perhaps there was something was wrong with him.
At that point I should have just walked away from it all, but I knew that my partner Don, would have liked nothing better than to make a fool out of this poor fellow, so to save the guy any more embarrassment, I asked him, how, can we help you sir.
I could see that as soon as I said that it was like I had lifted a great burden off his shoulders. He reached across the counter and shook my hand. “Thank you, he said, “My name is Willis Dupont.”
Mr. Dupont, then said, “Sir, our family had eight cars, that were designed and built just for us, the cars are called Dupont’s and I have one of them in my garage. However, I rarely use it, and your company had repaired my cars starter, several years ago. Unfortunately, we are having a problem starting the car now. So I found your receipt in my record file, and I thought perhaps you had a guarantee.”
As I listened to what he said, I couldn’t believe that I was actually talking to one of the Dupont’s. I had heard that a Dupont family lived in South Florida, but I never expected to actually meet one of them. They were one of the most famous families in the world.
So, I suggested to Mr. Willis Dupont that he bring the cars starter in to us, and I would be more than happy to check it out for him. When I said that, I could now see Mr. Dupont appeared very relieved.
The next morning, at 10 AM, there was Willis Dupont and the blond fellow, standing at our parts counter with a starter motor all wrapped up in an expensive looking blue bath towel. This time, Mr. Dupont introduced the young man that was with him as his secretary and chauffer.
I looked at the starter motor, and I immediately recognized it as being a very old, six volt starter used on a 6 cylinder Continental engine, that was from the 1940's to the 1950’s. The starter motor looked very clean, just like it was brand new.
I could see that Mr. Dupont didn’t appear to be a mechanically knowledgeable person, but here he was on what was to him, a very serious mechanical mission to repair his starter, so to make him feel at ease, I tried to act like it was important to me also.
I picked up the starter and I invited Willis and his secretary to come and follow me into our shop where we could test the starter motor for him.
Both Mr. Dupont and his secretary followed right behind me, it was comical, we walked like we were in a Charlie Chaplin movie, all of us stepping in unison with them following only about ten inches behind me. I couldn’t help but laugh but they were very serious.
I put the starter onto our test machine, and when I tested it, it performed perfectly. So I removed it and told Willis that his starter worked perfectly. But I could see by the distressed look on his face he wasn’t satisfied with that, he was expecting me to find a problem.
I told Willis, that I believe the cars problem lay elsewhere, the starter was not your problem. So my suggestion to him was that he needed to have someone do an electrical diagnostic test on the car’s electrical system, and that was something that my company didn’t do. However, I knew that there were several companies in Miami that could do it for him. I could see Willis Dupont didn’t agree with me, He said, “I already have a family mechanic, he took the starter off the engine for me. He then asked, “Sir, would you please look at what’s inside the starter”, I was really surprised that he was so adamant about something being wrong with the starter.
Under any other circumstances, and with any other customer, I wouldn’t have wasted any more of my time, or our shop time fooling around with these guys, but hey, this was Willis Dupont, and how many opportunities would I ever have to talk to a Dupont. So I took the starter to a work bench, it wasn’t every day that I had a Dupont for a customer.
I then took the starter motor all apart, and I tested and inspected every piece as Willis Dupont watched my every move. But each part I tested was perfect and just like brand new.
After testing all the parts, I assured Willis that everything was perfect, but I could see that he was absolutely certain something had to be wrong. So he suggested I change some of the parts anyway, as long as the starter was all apart.
Now I reasoned that here I was, only trying to please him, so I agreed to change some parts and I told Mr. Dupont and his secretary to come back the next day.
At 10 AM, the following morning, they were both back, and they followed me to the work bench to see what I had done. I purposely had not put the starter together, so Willis could see what parts I had replaced. As they watched, I started assembling the starter, and I put a small amount of lubricating grease into the front and rear bushings.
The bushings were already impregnated with a black graphite lubricant and Willis immediately noticed the dark color and asked “Why is that grease so dark?” I had to think quickly, and I said that’s because it is a special Dupont lubricant. It was a little fib, but Willis was satisfied.
I assembled the starter, tested it, and carried it out to his car. Willis asked me if he owed us any money and I said yes, you owe me $27.50 for the new parts. I said, the cost of my labor is a gift to you. So then I went into the office and wrote him out an invoice. Then Willis Dupont said,
“I’m sorry but I have no money.” His secretary said he personally would return tomorrow and pay us.
The next day Willis Dupont’s secretary came by with the money, and he said he was sorry for the problem we had with Mr. Dupont. He said, it happens all the time, as Mr. Dupont, never carries any money with him. So I asked him if the job working for the Dupont family was interesting, he said “Yes, every day was an adventure. He told me that one day, Willis Dupont was having a heated telephone argument with Howard Hughes of the Hughes Tool Company. The argument was over some oil drill bits that were made by the Hughes’s Tool Company, and had failed on a Dupont oil drilling rig”.
He said that “Willis was so mad at Howard Hughes that he just threw the telephone down on the floor, not realizing that his call had never disconnected. Eventually a telephone bill for several thousand dollars came to the Dupont’s residence”.
I thought that after being paid, I was through with the Dupont’s, but that was not to be, because later in the same day I received a call from the Dupont’s family mechanic, saying that Willis had asked him to call me. It appeared that the Dupont’s car was still very hard starting. So I told the mechanic what I had told Willis, our company was not an automotive diagnostic test center, and the best thing they could do was contact a company that could test the entire electrical system on the car, and they could pin point where the actual problem was.
The mechanic said that dealing with Willis Dupont was not always that easy. Nor was telling him what to do easy, but he would try, to convince him.
Then the mechanic told me that several years ago Willis Dupont sent to his shop a special Dupont race car, it needed some repairs. When the car was fixed the mechanic called the Dupont’s to come get their car. The mechanic said he called the Dupont’s several times to come pick the race car up, but to this day it still remains in his shop covered up, and it’s been there over ten years now. He said it was just like Willis had just forgotten about it.
After speaking to the Dupont’s mechanic, I told him not to worry about convincing Willis, I said that I would call an electrical diagnostic company, and have them contact Willis directly to find out what the starting problem was.
About two days, I received a call from the diagnostic service center, it seems that they had quickly found the problem. They said that when the car was manufactured, the battery was put in the trunk, and a long copper cable was used to connect the battery to the starter. Over time the cable became corroded and started drawing too much amperage, and now needed to be replaced.I never heard from Willis Dupont again, so I assume the car now starts OK, but if anyone ever sees a Dupont automobile on the highway, it has my rebuilt starter on it.