The eastern portions of 11th Street in Tulsa (also known as Route 66) resemble more of a rural highway than a city road. Homes and empty fields make up most of the landscape with an occasional church or small business hanging on to life. Near 133rd East Avenue, a sign on the south side of the road caught my attention recently.
“Crow Motors” it says above a phone number that is surely disconnected. But there’s also a small blue section that says, “Birthplace of Thrifty”. The lot behind the sign is empty; the only residents skitter away when I get out of the car. Is this forgotten concrete pad really the place where one of the largest rental car companies in the United States began?
Well, yes, as it turns out.
Leslie “L.G” Crow founded Thrifty Rent-a-Car with his wife, Freeda in 1958. A 1957 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia was the first car rented out and most of the rest of the fleet was made up of Volkswagen Beetles, which Crow called thrifty and dependable. In those early days, cars rented for $6 a day and $.06 a mile. Eventually, the cars on offer included Ford Falcons, AMC Ramblers, and Mercury Comets.
By 1962, business was becoming overwhelming. People called constantly and would come by when the office was closed, stepping over the driveway chain, insisting to rent a car. Crow’s friend Bill Stemmons wanted him to expand the business into a nationwide system, but Leslie wanted out. He sold Stemmons his fleet at value with an additional $1,000 for the Thrifty name. At the end of the year, Stemmons had opened offices in six other cities and operated a fleet of 140 cars.
The business continued to grow. The first European office was opened in 1972; by the time Stemmons sold his stake in the company in 1981, the Thrifty Rent-A-Car System operated in approximately 500 branches around the world. The new owners, William E. “Bill” Lobeck and his partners, worked out a deal with Chrysler to offer rental services on their car lots. Business grew exponentially; the company went public in 1987. Two years later, Chrysler bought the company outright for over $200 million. Eventually, Thrifty would be folded into Hertz, the second-largest rental car company in the United States. The headquarters for Thrifty remained in Tulsa until 2013, 55 years after that first Volkswagen drove off the rental lot on Route 66.
Crow operated used car dealerships for many years including at his lot on 11th Street (his nephew, Jimmy D. Crow, worked for him before co-founding Crow Brothers Toyota in 1965.) Leslie Crow passed away in 2007.
Bill Lobeck, along with his wife (former Tulsa mayor Kathy Taylor) enjoyed continued success in the rental car industry for many years and founded the Lobeck-Taylor Family Foundation. LTFF now operates Mother Road Market, a food hall on Route 66 a few miles away from the solitary sign serving as a faded footnote of local history.