One hundred years and four generations later, business is good.
Guided by a shared entrepreneurial spirit, creativity and outright gumption, Robert A. Smith and his descendants have, for a full century, maintained a line of successful California car dealerships.
They’ve weathered war, recession and changes in customer taste, evolving with an enthusiastic, steadfast reliance on one another.
Last week, a few members of the family traversed memory lane, reminiscing about the long road between the first Chevrolet dealerships in San Francisco in 1917 and those operating in La Crescenta and Calabasas currently.
Tim Smith, whose BMW and MINI dealerships in Calabasas now are run by his daughters, Catherine and Anne, cites the 1906 San Francisco earthquake for getting the business rolling.
“The people living in San Francisco figured out that horses don’t run out of town very easily when they’re spooked,” said Tim Smith, who, at 70, is the youngest of the four Smith brothers — there’s also Rob, Pete and Mike — who have been involved in the business. (They have younger siblings, John and Christine, who never sold cars).
“The earthquake is why [my grandfather] wanted to get in the car business,” Tim Smith said. “He figured people wanted to buy cars so if there was another earthquake, they could take off and get going. That’s what really fueled the car business in San Francisco.”
R.A. Smith, as he was known before he became “Papa” to his grandsons, opened about a dozen small dealerships in the city, including his headquarters on Van Ness Avenue. He also launched the Continental Finance Corporation to help his customers pay for the cars — a business he relinquished, his grandsons said, because of pressure from big car manufacturers.
“The head honchos from General Motors and Chevrolet came and told Papa that they were going to buy it,” said Pete B. Smith — the uncle of Pete J. Smith, who owns Bob Smith Toyota in La Crescenta.
“And [R.A. Smith] said, ‘It’s not for sale.’ They said, ‘If you want to stay in business as a Chevrolet distributor, you’re going to sell us that finance company.’”
He was a smart man; he kept selling Chevys. And his finance company became part of the base of GAMC, or General Motors Acceptance Corporation.
R.A. Smith also was a gambling man.
“He loved to go to the racetrack, he loved to play poker, he loved to gamble,” said Tim, adding that his grandfather died in 1946 after suffering a stroke either on his way to or home from Santa Anita Racetrack.
“One time, we’re told, he went back to the [Jack] Dempsey-[Gene] Tunney fight in Chicago. He bet $10,000 — which sounds like an enormous amount for back then — and said, ‘I want to bet it on Dempsey.’ And the guys said they weren’t accepting anymore bets on Dempsey. So he says, ‘OK, put it on Tunney.’”
Tunney won that bout.
No one was so lucky during the Great Depression. The crisis wiped out R.A.’s business and sent him, in the Rolls Royce that no customer could afford to buy, down to Southern California to start over. With his partner, Harry Golden, he did; they opened a Dodge-Plymouth dealership in Burbank in 1933.
Then, during World War II, when car dealerships everywhere were closing, Smith called timeout.
“Papa stockpiled cars in a warehouse,” said Mike Smith, the familiar, friendly presence at Bob Smith Toyota, which he opened 24 years ago in La Crescenta.
“He did that and they took over another warehouse to do some machine work for the war effort,” Pete B. Smith said. “It was called a defense contract, but it was questionable whose defense it was in — his staying in business or the war effort.”
When the war ended, R.A. Smith had plenty of inventory to sell.
And when he died soon thereafter, his son Bob took over as partner. In 1953, three years after he moved his family to a four-acre lot “out in the country” that was La Cañada Flintridge, Bob bought out Golden and rebranded the dealership: Bob Smith Dodge Plymouth.
When the economy took a downturn in the mid-1970s, he took to stockpiling cars, too.
“He said, ‘Go out and buy these cars from dealers, but only the good colors, and we’ll build a warehouse full of those Porsches,’” Pete B. Smith said. “We sold more Porsches as a dealer during 1974 than any dealer in Southern California because we had all the cars; there wasn’t any place else to buy them.”
They’d started selling Porsches in May 1963, swapping the struggling Dodge brand and purchasing the Volkswagen-Porsche dealership in Hollywood.
The family also would go on to deal Audis, Fiats, Alfa Romeos, Mitsubishis, Lancias and BMWs — the latter of which grew, on their watch, from an unknown German brand to the Smith family’s longest-running make.
“I was the youngest of the [brothers], so he decided, well, ‘We’ve got to get a dealership for Tim,’” said Tim Smith, who on Oct. 1, 1973, became general manager at Bob Smith BMW when it opened in place of a shuttered Burger Chef restaurant in Canoga Park.
“BMW was really small,” Tim added, noting that only 14,000 BMWs sold nationwide that first year. “I remember that: We lost money and I called my dad and he said, ‘Don’t worry. That’s going to be a good franchise someday.’”
Mike Smith said he and his brothers — who grew up spending their summers at dealerships, washing cars and learning the trade — all grew to appreciate the value of a positive outlook.
“He’d come home and he’d say, ‘Wait to you see this new Dodge, it’s just fabulous!’” Mike Smith said. “And some of the Dodges were the ugliest cars in America. But Daddy sold us on the idea of how beautiful they were.”
There was another lesson, Mike Smith said: “Daddy said, ‘Sell ’em the way the customer wants them.”
“When the dealers would get cars, most of them would put a lot of equipment on them — you could get a $1,200 car up to $1,500,” Mike said. “So some dealers chose to over-sticker, but that has never been our style. Daddy’s thing was, ‘The customers are what you’re going to take care of, because the day is going to come when there’s going to be more cars than customers.’”
Thinking beyond the lot, Bob also founded Sierra Leasing in Glendale in 1962. He handed it over to Rob Smith, the eldest, to run after he graduated from UCLA.
“There were only two players in the independent leasing business then,” Tim Smith said. “So leasing was a great business. At one point, they had about 3,500 cars and trucks out on lease.”
Bob Smith died in November 2001 at 87, his legacy intact.
In the 1990s, Tim Smith began the process of moving the growing BMW dealership from Canoga Park to Calabasas while Mike Smith decided it was time to get out of Hollywood, where the surrounding neighborhood was deteriorating.
“I loved the spirit of the people [in Hollywood], the crazy people,” Mike Smith said. “But I wanted to be in a neighborhood store. That means taking care of not only the people but taking care of their interests, too — churches, schools, all that stuff that goes with being in a neighborhood.
“And we wanted to be a Toyota dealer.”
Volkswagen sales were declining, he said, with 43,000 sold in the United States in 1993, the same year that 78,000 Toyotas were sold in Southern California alone.
The arrival of Mike’s son, Pete J. Smith, helped the dealership gain its local footing, and the dealership has grown from 40 employees in 1995 to the 85 who work there now, selling and servicing Toyotas.
Pete J. Smith bought the store from his dad in 2011, though “for all practical purposes, we’re partners, which is great,” he said.
“Being able to come to work with my dad and have lunch with him pretty much every day, it’s terrific,” Pete J. Smith said. “The one thing that always impressed me was that it wasn’t work, it was always fun. I understand why Dad wanted to do what he did, because going to lunch with my dad and with my kids this summer, it was awesome.”
That’s right, he brought his three children to work this summer.
Whether any of them turns to selling cars “remains to be seen,” Pete J. Smith said, but he’s not counting out a fifth generation of Smith salesmen.
“My youngest, Charlie, he’s a people person,” Pete J. Smith said. “Just like my dad.”