Hot Wheels

Gardner Stone of G. Stone Motors revs up his business through down-'n'-dirty motor sports

by Pip Vaughan-Hughes

Photos: Jeff Clarke

Larger than life: The phrase could have been minted for Gardner Stone. Big, genial, shaven-headed and filled with energy, the owner and president of G. Stone Motors Inc. in Middlebury plays as hard as he works; and although Stone works with big vehicles, his pastimes take the idea of motor sports to a whole different level.

Driving down U.S. 7, one of the first noticeable landmarks past Middlebury is the huge lot of G. Stone Motors, and particularly the collection of Hummers that dwarf the other pickup trucks and SUVs that surround them. The Hummer, or High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV), is the massive, Jeep type of Army vehicle familiar from footage of Desert Storm. Sitting in a Hummer driving seat is like trespassing on giant territory: Everything is bigger and wider than usual, and the styling combines military sparseness with high-tech luxury. G. Stone Motors is the only dealership in the Northeast that handles the civilian Hummer. Stone, who drives one himself, says the market for them is "very volatile. We'd like to think we could average 25 a year, but we might sell 10, or we might sell 30." Most of them are sold as "high-end toys or novelty vehicles," says Stone, "but we did sell two to a mine in Colorado to be used as people carriers. The diesel motors -- no sparks -- make them safe for underground work," he explains. "We leased two to Budweiser, which they use to drive around college job fairs," he adds, "and one to a condo development in South Daytona, Fla. It's the last place in the state that will ever be given a license to dredge, and the Hummer is used to drive prospective clients around the sand flats where the development will be built."

Gardner Stone

Ford and GM vehicles share the lot at G. Stone Motors Inc. of Middlebury. Gardner Stone added Hummers to the mix in 1993.

Stone was born and raised in Middlebury, and has lived there all his life. He got started in the automobile business in 1964 selling GM products. "I've always enjoyed cars -- owned my first one at 15," he says. "I started selling them because I had a gut feeling that it was the right thing for me to do. I wanted to try it, wanted the challenge. First car I sold? It was a 1962 Chevy Impala, black, and Teresa Bicknell bought it," he remembers.

By the early '70s Stone was truck manager at the local GM dealer, and then in 1974 he set up his own used car dealership. "I second-mortgaged my house, right in the middle of the energy crisis," he recalls, but the gamble paid off. "I think the first car we sold was a '68 Mustang," he says, and enough sales followed for the business to move into bigger premises opposite the A & W building on U.S. 7 South.

In 1981 Stone acquired the franchise for GMC trucks. Two years later he did the same for Ford cars and trucks and Mercury cars, and built the facility on the corner of Boardman Street and U.S. 7 where the business is still based. "I don't know of another dealer in the country that has Ford and GM under the same roof." This unique relationship was tricky at first. "Ford wanted a home-town boy to sell their vehicles," Stone recalls, "but things didn't settle down until 1985. Then we noticed that GM and Ford would call us up to find out what the other company was doing. It was 'What's Ford doing for programs?' 'What's GM got coming in?' he chuckles, remembering what must have been something like an automotive Cold War. "Things have settled down now, though," he adds. Finally, in 1993, he acquired the Hummer franchise.

This unique diversity of brands is not the only thing that makes G. Stone Motors unusual. "We're very entrepreneurial," Stone explains, "and very, very diversified. We'll take anything in trade, anything at all," he states. "We've taken car carriers, wreckers, you name it -- pigs, food, property, even cowboy hats." And indeed the Middlebury lot contains everything from coupes to heavy dump trucks. "The biggest part of the business is trucks of all sizes," explains Stone, "but again, we sell anything." Stone reckons that 60 percent of his business is used vehicles and equipment; 40 percent is new cars, trucks, carriers and wreckers.

Gardner & Todd Stone

G. Stone Motors is the only dealership in the Northeast that handles the civilian Hummer, which combines military sparseness with high-tech luxury. Gardner Stone's son, Todd, is vice president and co-owner of the business.

Stone's business is a family affair. His son Todd, 31, is vice president of the corporation and co-owner, and daughter Darcy Stone Audette, 33, is service coordinator. "I've got four grandchildren, and another on the way," Stone beams proudly. "My son is pretty much taking over. I'm off and on through the summer. I leave for Florida after Christmas, and I'm back by May first. The car business is very demanding," he declares, "so I take time off."

Even when he's having fun, Stone is still doing business. "My philosophy of business is, treat people like I want to be treated, but don't advertise." Instead, Stone uses his hobbies to provide the company's publicity. If, that is, you can describe being the country's number one tractor puller (in the Unlimited Class) a hobby. Stone's unlimited, modified pulling tractor, The General, is a shining black, 12,000 horsepower monster that belches flame from four jet turbine engines, the first tractor to be powered in this way. In his publicity photographs, Stone, sitting high above the monolithic rear tires, looks like a man riding on the head of a titanic, fire-spitting dragon. Stone has been tractor-pulling for 21 years, and is a champion many times over. In 1990 and '99 he was Grand National Champion. In 1990 he was also voted Modified Tractor Puller of the Year. He has won the Indy Super Pull three times.

"I've been to Europe three times now," says Stone, "to Holland, France and Germany. The General is probably Number One in the world, although it's difficult to say for sure as the classifications are different." Ever the entrepreneur, he can't resist a sale wherever he is. "I've sold three of my old tractors in Europe," he says happily. The truck and trailer that hauls The General from event to event is such a familiar sight on the pulling circuit that Ertl, the model car maker, has made a scale replica of it, one of which sits proudly in a cabinet in Stone's office. "We put something like 30,000 miles a year on the real thing," he says. "We used to attend 25 to 30 events a year, though now it's more like 13."

Service center

"We'll take anything in trade, anything at all," says Gardner Stone. "We've taken car carriers, wreckers, you name it -- pigs, food, property, even cowboy hats." The company's service department is coordinated by daughter Darcy Stone Audette.

It's not just The General that carries the name of G. Stone Motors to the country at large. The company is also involved in stock car racing. Todd Stone drives two cars in the Eastern Dirt Modifieds -- "the highest form of dirt racing in the east," Stone explains. "We have two cars: a small-block, 500 horsepower Ford and a big-block, 700 horsepower GM." Although they usually race on local tracks like the Devil's Bowl in Orwell, they will travel farther afield. "We just got back from Super Dirt Week in Syracuse," says Stone, "which is the Daytona of dirt racing." The elder Stone started drag racing in 1964 before expanding his repertoire: "Enduro, snowmobiles, go-carts: I'm into anything that's competitive and makes a lot of noise," he laughs.

If you happen to be in South Daytona during the winter months, you might see an overall-clad figure in green rubber boots astride a monstrous motorcycle. That would be Gardner Stone, complete with false buck teeth for the full hillbilly effect, out for a spin on his Boss Hoss. This outsize machine is powered by a 406 cubic inch GM car motor (more often found in a Corvette) with nitrous oxide for extra muscle, which Stone has painted to look like a green and yellow John Deere tractor. "It's an 1,100-pound bike, but it handles real well," he says, "and it's the only John Deere Boss Hoss around, so people notice. And that's good for business."

The General

The General, Gardner Stone's 12,000-horsepower pulling tractor, belches flame from four jet turbine engines. The truck and trailer that haul the beast from event to event is such a familiar sight on the circuit that model maker Ertl has immortalized it as a scale replica. (Photo courtesy G. Stone Motors)

Stone, who has his winter home in the Florida beach town, is working on another pet project: his 36-foot Skater catamaran powerboat. Emblazoned with stars, stripes and huge G. Stone Motors logos, the boat, which Stone has just fitted with twin PT6 turbine engines, will be carrying the Middlebury company's message, writ large, to the waterways of the Sunshine State and to Lake Champlain. "It'll be the only twin turbo boat on the lake, but it's just for fun, not racing," admits Stone. Although his vehicles give him enormous pleasure, they do have a serious side. "No one runs their business like me, with high-profile machines," he insists. "I don't want to look like anyone else." The General has proved both an incentive and an asset. "Tractor pulling's been like the carrot that kept me wanting to do better -- to have more money and time for it. And the high-profile aspect has also propelled the business," he explains.

Stone's policy of melding fun with promotion has ensured that his company prospers. G. Stone Motors employs 40 to 45 people. It boasts a reconditioning shop and a shop dedicated to race-cars. As well as sales, the company provides full mechanical service. There is a bimonthly newsletter, and "we've gone online, too," says Stone proudly.

If there's a defining force behind G. Stone Motors, it is the overwhelming presence of its owner, who, whether astride the mighty Boss Hoss or riding the gargantuan, fiery General, is tirelessly bringing his own brand of business to northern Vermont.

Pip Vaughan-Hughes is a free-lance writer recently arrived in Vermont from London