Thirty-five Years and Counting: St. John Car Rental Takes a Look Back

Albert, Aaron and Lonnie Willis in 1975 standing at their car rental hut on Cruz Bay Beach, where Dockside building is now located.

When Lonnie and Albert Willis first visited St. John together in 1974, the two hippie kids from New York camped out and grooved out on the slow-paced  island life — with no idea they would still be running a successful business here more than 35 years later.

Although the 1974 vacation was not the first time Albert Willis had visited Love City — he stayed on the island in the mid-1960s after reading about it in a travel book — this time around the visit was different. Tiring of the congested and cold northeast, the couple was looking for more than a great place to snorkel.

“We came down in August 1974 and were camping out at Cinnamon Bay,” said Lonnie Willis. “We were looking for something we could possibly do here and that’s when we met Forrest Fisher, a local realtor who owned St. John Car Rental.”

“We asked him if there were any businesses for sale and he said there were two for sale on the island — a travel agency and his 14-vehicle car rental,” Lonnie Willis said. “We said, ‘Hmmm, a car rental agency — we could do that.’”

“We told Forrest we’d be back, but he probably thought he’d never see us crazy hippies again,” said Albert Willis.

Six months later, the Willises — with their two young sons, a dog and a cat in tow — were back on St. John as the new owners of St. John Car Rental.

When they acquired SJCR on January 9, 1975, it was located right next to the Cruz Bay ferry dock in an old thatched-roof hut. The 14 vehicle fleet, composed of VW Things and Mini-mokes, was parked in front of where the jewelry store Free Bird stands today.

The early days of SJCR were bereft of credit card machines, fax lines, computers and even photo copiers. Soon, however, the Willises settled into extended lunch hours, the slow pace of st. John and the boys enrolled in the Julius E. Sprauve School.

“We used to take two hour lunches and eat our food right on the beach,” said Lonnie Willis. “We’d see Mr. Varlack running around working and ask him what he was doing. If anything happened, or anyone needed help, all the businesses would close down.”

“If there was a boat on the rocks, or a plane down, we would all close up and get right out there,” said Albert Willis. “Even if we heard something had happened on the North Shore, we’d close down and go help.”

A 1977 Willis family photo

After spending several years in their hut by the dock, the Willises relocated for a short time to an area near the ferry ticket booth, before settling into a location across from the U.S. Post Office.

SJCR would operate out of the Cruz Bay Creek area for the next 24 years, before congestion in that site drove the Willises to look for a different location for their growing business and vehicle fleet.

The couple purchased a building on the opposite end of town across from the Catholic Church and began construction of their current two-story concrete building in 2001.

While SJCR has been in constant operation since  the Willises purchased the business, the couple has also worn several different hats over the past 35 years. Albert Willis has long been on the lookout for real estate acquisitions and found quite a few on St. John.

“Some people collect stamps,” said Albert Willis. “I collect real estate.”

First, the couple purchased the Rain Tree Mall where they operated a short-term rental business for a time. That eventually became the Fish Trap Restaurant, which is owned and operated by Albert and Lonnie’s son Aaron today.

Boulon Center and the Stone Terrace building — which is home to tex-mex eatery Cactus on the Blue today — would join the Willis’ property portfolio. Throughout all that time, the two remained dedicated to SJCR and today it is their main business operation.

The Willises have also been actively involved in a number of community organizations and Lonnie Willis was an integral part of getting the St. John Accommodations Council off the ground and is currently treasurer of the St. John Community Foundation.

While many factors contributed to the Willis’ success, much of SJCR’s longevity can be attributed to its dedicated employees including Bobby Morton and Cynthia Dupigny, according Lonnie Willis.

“The only reason we can continue to run the business is because we have this core group of employees who take such pride in the car rental business,” she said.

As the Willises look back over 35 years of business, the couple is still surprised so much time has passed.

“When we first arrived, there were the old timers who came in the 1950s back then,” said Lonnie Willis. “We really looked up to them and now that’s us.”

For more information about SJCR, check out the website or call 776-6103.