Diane Mastrull: Gas-free motorcycles are new hope for a new Eckenhoff business

Ted Eckenhoff with a Zero S electric motorcycle in his showroom. Eckenhoff Motorcycles of Cherry Hill is the only dealership in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware chosen to carry the California makers gas-free bikes. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Ted Eckenhoff with a Zero S electric motorcycle in his showroom. Eckenhoff Motorcycles of Cherry Hill is the only dealership in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware chosen to carry the California makers gas-free bikes. TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 09, 2012

There was a time when Ted and Glenn Eckenhoff would have cared about Tuesday's announcement by General Motors Co. that its U.S. sales of cars and small crossovers with good gas mileage had increased 12 percent in March.

Not anymore. During a 90-minute interview that day, the father-son business team that spent decades selling GM cars in Cherry Hill didn't once mention the auto giant's promising month.

Two-wheelers are the focus of their significantly diminished business world now. And their hopes for a strong comeback are especially tied to an oddity in the typically vroom-vroom industry of motorcycles: a virtually silent electric version.

Eckenhoff Motorcycles of Cherry Hill is the first dealership in the Philadelphia region - indeed the only one in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware - chosen to carry California-based Zero Motorcycles' line of gas-free bikes. They can exceed 100 miles on a single charge and reach speeds of up to 88 m.p.h.

"We have something really neat, and it fits the world right now," said Ted Eckenhoff, referring to the green movement and its push, endorsed by the White House, for more energy-independent ways of living.

Not that you're likely to see the former chairman of Virtua Health's board of trustees and former founding member of Sterling Banks Inc. straddling a Zero too often.

"I rode motorcycles when I was younger, but my body doesn't seem to want to do that anymore," the 75-year-old Burlington County resident said. "I have a little trouble getting my legs over."

A still-active farmer who grows soybeans and feed corn on his 280-acre property in Southampton Township, Eckenhoff's preferred modes of travel these days are a 1994 GMC pickup and a 2006 Audi A6.

But it was motorcycles that helped lure the elder Eckenhoff out of dealership retirement in 2010 to go into business with son Glenn on Church Road, across from the Cherry Hill Mall. Besides the motorcycle subsidiary, Eckenhoff Automotive involves the sale of used cars and repair services.

The going has not been easy.

"We reopened and thought we'd at least be able to pay the taxes," which are about $10,000 a month, Eckenhoff said. Instead, he has had to rely on some farming income for support.

"You sit there every day and decide which bills you're going to pay," he said. "It's been the most difficult time in my life."

It's a drastic change from when Eckenhoff Buick, which Ted Eckenhoff ran from 1982 until he retired in 2002, was No. 1 in sales on the East Coast and No. 2 in the country. The dealership operated from the site that now boasts a showroom of motorcycles and riding apparel. Outside, a sprawling lot once was filled with new cars is now largely empty.

GM cars were providing income for the Eckenhoff family long before then. In 1966, Ted and his father, Alvin, would buy the former Scott Smith Cadillac in Philadelphia and operate it as Center City Cadillac. Four years later, Alvin Eckenhoff was killed when the private plane he was piloting iced up and crashed nose first into a field in Maryland. By 1979, neighborhood conditions had deteriorated and dealerships had sprung up in more appealing areas, so Ted Eckenhoff closed the business and sold the 230,000-square-foot building to GM.

He concentrated on running an export business he had started about 1975. In 1982, he was offered the chance to get back into the car business, buying a Buick franchise in Moorestown from a friend's brother, which he moved in 1999 to his current business site in Cherry Hill.

He turned it over to sons Glenn and Scott when he retired. Scott Eckenhoff would ultimately buy out his brother. About 2004, GM required Scott Eckenhoff to sell the franchise to another dealer as part of a massive realignment program. Scott would go on to operate a GM dealership in Jenkintown.

But he was left holding a $2.5 million mortgage on a dealership property in Cherry Hill that included a showroom and 22 service bays - and no product, his father said. Ted Eckenhoff would come in as a guarantor on that mortgage as part of a deal that involved Liberty Bell Bank taking over the loan from TD Bank. TD had assumed it in its acquisition of Commerce Bank but didn't want it because it involved a vacant building.

And then opportunity struck: DeSimone Motorcycles in Mount Laurel closed, and Ted and Glenn Eckenhoff took a leap to attempt to fill the void created. Eckenhoff Automotive and Eckenhoff Motorcycles opened in March 2010 with six employees, including a couple of DeSimone refugees and Glenn's wife, Heidi, who takes care of the books.

Currently, 90 percent of the revenue is from repairs, Glenn Eckenhoff said, but he's hoping the Zero Motorcycles line - which debuted in 2006 in California as a dirt bike and have been in stock at Eckenhoff only about two weeks - will lure customers interested in experiencing something different and willing to buy. The first Zero sale was expected to be finalized this weekend.

Ranging in price from $7,650 to $13,990, the Zero, whose national sales volume the company would not disclose, requires no oil or shifting - just a power cord no different from a computer's. No earplugs are needed either, which might not be considered a plus by all motorcycle enthusiasts, Ted Eckenhoff offered.

"I don't see it as a market for people who like Harley-Davidsons," he said. "First of all, it doesn't make any noise."

Harley devotee Maryann Carney, 57, of Pennsauken, got a chance to test-ride a Zero when she stopped off recently at Eckenhoffs on business as a recruiter for Women in the Wind, Jersey Girls chapter, a motorcycle group.

She declared her experience "a fun ride, an easy ride. It would be a great bike for someone who wants to learn or â ¦ who doesn't want to get into something that's really big and heavy."

But she's not trading in her 2007 Harley-Davidson Super Glide.

"Oh my gosh, I love the look of it â ¦ the feel of it," said Carney, a project manager for a development firm.

And she likes the noise, for security reasons, she said:

"People can hear me coming."

Contact Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466, dmastrull@phillynews.com or follow @mastrud on Twitter.

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