He was born in 1895, before the automobile age, when the Cadillac tailfin was still just a gleam in the eye of two-year-old Harley Earl. But a review of his life is a review of America’s love affair with the automobile in the twentieth century.
Frank Diffenbacher Kent was born in Clinton, Missouri. As a youth he fell in love with automobiles in 1910 when his father, Edwin C. Kent, bought an EMF 30 (“30” as in thirty horsepower).
Frank’s father, a tailor and clothing merchant, placed this ad in the 1911 Clinton High School yearbook when Frank was a sophomore.
In the yearbook Frank Kent was characterized as “very merry.”
After serving in World War I and being discharged in 1919 Kent sold clothing in his father’s store in Clinton for eight years.
Kent was still in his hometown selling clothing in 1920.
But in 1927 he moved to Fort Worth to sell used cars for Sanford Webb and Earl North’s Buick and Marquette dealership. Later that year Kent started his own General Motors Truck Company.
But Kent sold the truck dealership in 1929 and moved to Lubbock to open Kent Buick Company.
In 1930 Kent moved back to Fort Worth to renew his association with Sanford Webb, buying out Earl North and becoming a junior partner in Webb-Kent Buick dealership at 13th and Burnett streets.
By 1932 Webb-Kent was selling Pontiacs.
In 1935 Kent opened his own Ford and Lincoln-Mercury dealership on Henderson Street. The 1936 Lincoln-Zephyr had a twelve-cylinder engine.
Frank Kent’s wife Florence was the daughter of Lily Peak Jones and the granddaughter of Florence Peak, wife of Carroll Peak, Fort Worth’s first doctor. Mrs. Kent probably was named for her grandmother. Olive Peak, living next door on Wilshire Boulevard, was the sister of Lily Peak Jones.
In 1939 Frank Kent moved his dealership from 1101 West 7th Street to a new facility at Lancaster and Main streets.
This photo is from the 1940s. The seven-acre dealership was built on the site of the 1899 Texas & Pacific railroad passenger terminal.
At Christmastime in 1940 you could buy a Lincoln-Zephyr, household appliances, radios, sporting goods, and bicycles at the new dealership. Frank Kent is on the left in the photo.
In 1953 Kent gave up the Ford franchise and bought a Cadillac franchise after the previous franchise holder was convicted of income tax evasion. The previous dealership had been selling about three hundred Cadillacs a year. Kent soon was selling fourteen hundred a year.
Frank Kent became a Cadillac dealer just as tailfins were becoming all the rage. This ad from October 1953 shows the modest tailfins of the new 1954 models. (The Le Mans was a concept car, but the production models had the same modest tailfins.) General Motors design chief Harley Earl is credited with introducing tailfins on cars with the 1948 Cadillac. Earl took his inspiration from the twin tail booms of the Lockheed P-38 fighter plane.
“Motordom’s New Measurement” indeed! Designer Harley Earl retired in 1958 after designing the garage-busting “King Fin Caddie” of 1959. A 1959 Eldorado cost about $7,400 ($60,000 today). Only about 2,300 were made.
In 1984 the widening of the Lancaster/I-30 overpass corridor chopped three acres off the seven-acre Frank Kent lot, so the dealership moved to the Benbrook Traffic Circle. Thus, on March 12, 1986 the old dealership building was empty except for an inventory of fifty-seven cars when a backhoe operator working on the property for the city water department ruptured a Lone Star Gas pipe. Before Lone Star workers could contain the leak, an explosion and ensuing fire destroyed the dealership building, shattered nearby windows, rattled windows several blocks away, and injured twenty-two people.
”It seemed like a volcano or something,” said James Taylor, a seventh-grader who was on a bus passing the site when the explosion occurred. ”I was real scared.”
He and the twenty-one other people were treated at hospitals, mostly for lacerations from flying glass and debris, and released.
Officials at Frank Kent Cadillac said the value of the cars destroyed (valued then at $20,000-$24,000 each) was $1.5 million.
Deputy Fire Chief Don Peacock said investigators suspected that the pilot light of a water heater in the dealership building ignited the leaking gas.
Frank Kent remained active in his dealership until his death on September 13, 1987, just two days short of his ninety-second birthday.
“Mr. Cadillac” shared the front page with Pope John Paul II.
Frank Diffenbacher Kent is buried in Greenwood Cemetery.
Kent’s granddaughter, Wendy Kent Churchill, who in 1967 had become vice president/treasurer of the company, estimated that the dealership sold thirty-one thousand Cadillacs during Frank Kent’s thirty-four years as a dealer. Kent leased a new Cadillac to the city of Fort Worth every other year for one dollar a year. Famous customers included Liberace (pink Eldorado), actress Martha Ray, Governor John Connally, and Fort Worth oilman Sid Richardson, who once had Kent dispatch a fleet of Cadillacs to Dallas to circle the Adolphus Hotel while Richardson sat in the hotel’s coffee shop and shopped for a new Caddy from a window.
In 1989 Kent was posthumously inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Detroit.
Following Frank Kent’s death, Wendy Kent Churchill remained an owner and director. In 1999 she became owner and president of the company. Upon her death in 2005 ownership passed to her children, Will Churchill and Corrie Watson. Frank Kent Motor Company still owns and operates the family’s Cadillac, Hyundai, and Fisker dealerships. The Cadillac dealership today is located on Loop 820 South.