Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Normandin Dealership Keeps Family's Business Legacy Alive

The Normandins have been in the transportation business since San Jose's horse-and-buggy days
Photo by Normandin Chrysler

The ghosts of Downtown Datsun and Normandin DeSoto-Plymouth recently haunted the Rotary Summit Center for a presentation by Steve Borkenhagen, Jon Ball and Christine Davis about their team's project to build an iconic architectural landmark at Arena Green.

Their project, Urban Confluence Silicon Valley, grew out of an idea to recreate the old San Jose Light Tower—a scheme they thankfully scrapped in favor of something more forward-looking and citylike. Currently up for a worldwide competition, the final structure will be located at Guadalupe River Park and Gardens near Confluence Point, hence the name. Confluence Point is where the Los Gatos Creek and the Guadalupe River come together near the Shark Tank. It's a place to celebrate many converging spheres of influence in terms of ecology, technology, ethnicities, cultures and most of all, the gritty underbelly that used to occupy that stretch of Santa Clara Street before the Shark Tank existed.

As such, in a moment of pure serendipity, Paul Normandin of the famed car dealership family sat right next to me at the Rotary Summit presentation. We then immediately broke into 150 years of local lore, including the Normandin operation when it occupied 405 W. Santa Clara St., right where Arena Green is now (see photo). The cement barrier along the sidewalk, where Santa Clara crosses the river, still remains from 80 years ago.

"It's interesting that it's exactly the same wall," Paul said. "Even those tiles in the wall are still there."

The Normandin family has one of the most storied, legendary business pedigrees in San Jose history, going back to the horse and buggy days of 1875, when Amable "Amos" Normandin first emigrated from Montreal, Quebec. Cars were still about 20 years away, so Amos, a blacksmith, partnered with F.D. Hatman, a woodworker, to launch the Pacific Carriage Factory. Just one generation later saw the rise of Normandin-Campen, which dealt with now-obsolete cars like Hudson and Essex. Then Normandin bought out Campen and the business fell under the Normandin nom de plume. The business expanded into 405 W. Santa Clara St. in 1934, fully indoctrinated as a Chrysler franchise.

And speaking of 405 W. Santa Clara St., many local underbelly connoisseurs can at least wax poetic about Downtown Datsun, circa the '70s and '80s—"We are the dealingest!"—since that company later occupied the same building, offering up hysterical commercials and somewhat crooked promotional schemes. However, the Normandins first built the structure. In order to accommodate extensive service areas and indoor display bays, the building was one of the largest free-standing structures with no indoor pillars—a serious engineering feat for the day. After operating at 405 W. Santa Clara St. through two World Wars, the birth of the boomer generation and the beginnings of suburban sprawl, the Normandins sold the building to Downtown Datsun in 1969, after which they relocated to Capitol Expressway. To this day, an original Normandin-Hatman buggy from 1882 sits atop the roof of the dealership.

Paul represents the fifth generation of Normandins at the helm of the storied business. His dad, Lon Normandin, who still serves as the chairman, grew up in the old building at 405 W. Santa Clara St., sometimes even driving Jeeps down into the creek bed, that is, when FMC weren't testing their tanks in the same area.

"At one point in his childhood he lived upstairs above the service department with his dad," Paul told me. "I remember him telling me they had a homeless guy that used to live at the back of the lot, on the creek, and he was kind of their security guard that watched the place for them. ... He was there for years and knew all the employees. He was just a homeless guy that watched the lot at night time when everyone was gone."

This weekend and the following weekend, the SAP Center will rightly celebrate its 25th anniversary with a block party and other festival events at Arena Green, cementing a new era of history, to be continued once Urban Confluence Silicon Valley builds a new monument in the park. Nevertheless, the ghosts of Normandin DeSoto-Plymouth, Downtown Datsun and maybe even that homeless guy will make themselves known. Go, Sharks!