Revisiting Our Industry As It Once Was

Jim NewsletterYears ago there was a movie called Back to the Future featuring Michael J. Fox and a DeLorean, which had fallen into the forgotten mode until someone remembered that the future in that movie was the year 2015. All of a sudden this old movie reappeared to some pretty interesting “then and now” comparisons. It just happens that I was at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut this past Labor Day weekend for their 33rd Vintage Festival and as I wandered through the pits, it was almost like reliving a Back to the Future experience. There were all types of European sports cars from the 1930’s on up, like Alfa Romeo, Jaguar, MG, Triumph, BMW, Daimler and Porsche. Mercedes Benz had a tremendous display, including the #722 300 SLR that Sir Sterling Moss won the 1955 Mille Miglia with, along with Moss himself and Jochen Mass, another great Formula 1 and Sports Car driver.

A Long Time Ago…

I came up through the import side of the business in the late 60’s and early 70’s and the profile of a dealer principal then was vastly different from what is common today. Back then, many of the stores grew from a service and repair business, which was how the Europeans developed their networks back home after WWII, so it was normal for them to do it that way here, too. As a young field rep I interacted with most of my dealers in the service and parts areas of the store, not in the showroom or a corner office, as is more common today. Over the years I had forgotten about these early dealers as they became scarce in our business, until…

Meet Bob Leitzinger

As I was wandering the pits at Lime Rock admiring some fantastic vintage race cars, like two 1930’s Alfa Romeo Grand Prix 6C’s, I ran into an old acquaintance who had his immaculate 1968 Lotus 26R roadster and crew set up like you would expect a Penske operation to look, except it wasn’t Mr. Penske. It was Bob Leitzinger. I’ve known Bob for a few years, both as a racer and as a Mercedes Benz and Nissan dealer in State College, PA. By the time I met him he was pretty much retired from the dealership and it was being run by a General Manager. He has since sold it and is spending his rewards doing what he has always wanted to do: racing.

In the Beginning…

Bob became a new car dealer in 1964 in Pittsburgh, PA. At that time he was having a hard time supporting his racing habit and he convinced the Lotus distributor in New York that they needed to open a point in Pittsburgh, and that it should be him. Later on he added Alfa Romeo and Datsun and basically did everything from service and parts to sales while still racing on a national level in SCCA. It was a typical profile of a small import store in the 60’s. He took on a partner to ease some of the load and like so many of these arrangements it didn’t work out as well as planned.

Moving on…

After the breakup of the partnership in Pittsburgh, Bob wound up in State College, PA, in 1968 as the GM in a Datsun/MG/British Leyland deal, and by 1972 was the dealer. He soon added Mercedes Benz and some other European lines, but eventually it became an MB/Nissan store, which it remained for the duration of his ownership. During this time, Bob put his racing career on the back burner to get the business going, but by late 1972 he was back at it again with Datsun, and later, Nissan ‘Z Cars. The effort became so successful that in 1989, Nissan became his sponsor and they won the Manufacturer’s Championship for four years running, starting in 1991. All during this time Bob was also “minding the store,” which was his prime support for the racing company, along with help from family and good staff.

Wrapping it up…

In 2002 Bob realized that his son, Butch, whom some of you may know as an accomplished auto racer in his own right, was not interested in continuing the business so he set out to find a buyer who would take the store forward and also be good to his long term staff. It wasn’t just about the multiples, and in 2006 he finally found that buyer and has been a “retired” racer ever since.

Visiting with Bob brought me back many years to a different kind of dealer, one that is fast disappearing in the consolidation of our industry. I’ll grant you there aren’t too many dealers who got into the business to go racing, although there are some others like Roger Penske, Ben Keating, and Bobby Rahal who are still active in racing today, but what makes Bob unusual is that it wasn’t all about the money. He had a goal and he accomplished it, and continues on to this day, albeit at a “retired” rate of speed. He’s a student of the business; in fact, he probably helped write some of the chapters on the import side way back then. 

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