Some can never be filled.
A 1986 D Magazine story featured families who had long owned successful dealerships in Dallas. That 30-year-old story featured still-familiar names — Sewell, Huffines, Ewing, Freeman, Snell, Young and Eagle — along with the families’ bios. It also named other names, which older individuals would remember immediately; but in time their stores either failed or were sold, and their would-be auto dynasties ended.
One of the more interesting stories was about Bob Eagle. Eagle had moved to Dallas in 1963 and purchased the Lincoln Mercury store on Lemmon Avenue, then considered North Dallas. Seven years later he acquired the first Honda automobile dealership in North Texas, and his was soon the largest volume Lincoln Mercury dealership in America. As I recall, Eagle’s dealership often outsold our (way) North Dallas Oldsmobile dealership in the mid-Seventies by as many as 100 vehicles a month. Then again, at the time Lemmon Avenue was an extremely popular destination for new car shoppers.
In those days the manufacturers were more involved in their dealerships’ financial well-being. They could force new management into long-term stores that were on the brink of failure, or were in danger of not having their franchise agreement renewed. Twice I was in a group that GM Regional Managers forced onto a troubled dealer. Being the quick learner of the trio my first time around, I was put in charge of creating that dealer’s first finance department. That’s right: Even as late as 1976 one Dallas dealer had never formally handled financing for his customers.
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The second time around I took the responsibility for fixing the used car operations. A.P. Van Winkle quickly informed me when I arrived that he had never really made any money in his used car operations. Yet he had been maybe the largest volume Pontiac dealer in America just four years earlier — when John Chase, who now owns Autobahn in Fort Worth, had been his manager. Which shows how fast a first-rate dealership can fall apart when great management goes elsewhere.
It took a few months to hire new kids, whom we could train to become decent salespeople, and to change how the used cars were presented on the front line. In those days used luxury cars, such as the Mercedes we carried, did not sell well. Some of our used Mercedes had been there a year. So that used car lot was put under me also. Sales increased, profits returned, and the Automotive News did a column on our used car sales turn-around and on my innovations.
But this story isn’t about my accomplishments.
No, one night a new Lincoln Mark V turned onto our lot and a gentleman got out wearing the most stunning Indian blanket coat anyone had ever seen. He asked to meet with the manager and was ushered into my office. It was Bob Eagle.
He sat down and told me that for nearly 15 years he had driven by Van Winkle’s used car lots on his way home. And he’d noticed a few months earlier that suddenly the vehicles were being displayed correctly — and, more important, he’d noticed that instead of sitting in the same spots month after month, they were disappearing regularly — which he knew meant they were being sold. He’d just wanted to come in and meet the person who had finally made that section of the dealership work.
He seemed surprised that I was only a kid. But after that, Eagle stopped by a couple of times just to sit and chat on his way home. I was floored. Here was one of the legendary Dallas dealers, the largest volume Lincoln Mercury dealer in America, stopping by just to let me know he thought I was doing a great job. Not only that, but Bob Eagle was one of the nicest, most down-to-earth individuals you could ever meet. That was the first truly positive feedback I’d been given by a dealer; and I didn’t even work for him.
A week ago Bob Eagle passed away at 88 years of age. I’ve never forgotten his act of kindness from nearly 40 years ago. Another Texas automotive legend is gone, and our industry is the poorer for his passing.
© Ed Wallace 2016
Ed Wallace is a recipient of the Gerald R. Loeb Award for business journalism, given by the Anderson School of Business at UCLA, and hosts the top-rated talk show, Wheels, 8:00 to 1:00 Saturdays on 570 KLIF AM. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.