Willis Xpress now operates where Nitti Subaru has been for years. (Staff photo by Rob Anthes.)
Willis Xpress now operates where Nitti Subaru has been for years. (Staff photo by Rob Anthes.)

Honda owners in Hamilton, who often had to prove their allegiance to the brand during the past three decades, now find themselves at the center of a skirmish for their business.

Prior to this spring, local Honda loyalists had to trek at least 12 miles to Princeton, Burlington or Langhorne, Pa., if they wanted find the closest dealer or service center.

All that changed when Hamilton Honda on Route 130 North officially opened June 9 with plenty of fanfare, including appearances by current and former NFL players. Retired New York Giants linebacker Jessie Armstead owns the dealership with business partner Mike Saporito.

Later that month, some competition quietly opened up on Route 33 in the long-time location of Nitti’s Subaru. The new business, Willis Xpress, is a satellite location of Burlington’s Willis Honda dealership.

Hamilton Honda’s franchise agreement prevents Willis from selling new vehicles or offering warranty-backed service at the Route 33 location. Willis Xpress will have used Hondas for sale and a service center, though. The new owners retained the Nitti’s service staff, as well as most of the dealership’s other employees.

Management at Willis views the Hamilton market as vital. Between 30 and 40 percent of Willis Honda’s business comes from north of the dealership’s Burlington location, general manager Jim Gilch said.

The end result is — with Hamilton Honda and Willis Xpress — local Honda owners are finally feeling some love. And that’s something both businesses can agree on.

“It gives people a choice,” Gilch said. “We weren’t willing just to give up our customers there. … We have our assigned area. But that doesn’t mean we won’t refer people to Burlington for warranty work or have plenty of pre-owned late models on the lot. We want to keep them.”

And so long as the Willis folks weren’t violating the terms of his franchise agreement or a state motor vehicle law regulating the geographic proximity of car dealerships of the same brand — which they aren’t — Saporito said he wasn’t worried and welcomed the competition.

“One of the reasons Willis is so against us is he feels he has a stake in this area,” he said. “They may be jumping into something that hurts them in the long run. Whatever happens, happens. Competitive response is good.”

The new opening is just the latest chapter of a tussle that began when the idea for a Hamilton dealership first arose almost two years ago. Willis Honda previously brought Hamilton Honda co-owners Armstead and Saporito to court in attempt to prevent the construction of a new dealership and maintain its hold on the Hamilton area.

That bid fell short, and Hamilton Honda has seen success in its first days. Between 50 and 70 new customers have visited Hamilton Honda’s service department each day during June, Saporito said.

“There’s a very high penetration of Honda registrations in the 25 miles around here,” Saporito said. “One of the reasons Honda gave us the agreement here is the retention rate for service was not acceptable. People were driving 15, 20 miles for an oil change by a Honda technician. Now that it’s convenient, we’re seeing the results.”

It is this base Willis Xpress hopes to tap into and, in some cases, maintain. The majority of gains are expected to come in sales of pre-owned cars, Gilch said. The rest will be keeping the business of Willis patrons with a closer option.

Gilch said he called Nitti’s ownership the minute he heard about the Subaru dealership’s sale to Haldeman Ford and the closing of the location at 1883 Route 33. It took two days to iron out a deal.

Willis began offering service in late June and pre-owned cars were slated for arrival in early July. A new façade and interior renovations are on its way to the 6,000-square foot building.

Gilch said no improvements had been made to the dealership’s aesthetics in almost four decades, and the renovations were necessary to get the location up to industry and company standard.

“We’re really excited about being part of Hamilton Square,” Gilch said. We’re just excited to join that area.”