There is no other city in the world that has helped shape the world of African American and minority car dealerships like Detroit.
It’s a rich history that has helped fuel the success of auto dealers like Pamela Rodgers, owner of Rodgers Chevrolet, located in Woodhaven.
Rodgers, a native Detroiter, has won a number of accolades over the years, including Crain’s Detroit Business newspaper’s Top Influential List for 2005, 2006 and 2007; Essence magazine’s 10 Top Black Female Entrepreneurs in 1999; and Black Enterprise magazine’s 100 Black Automotive Dealerships, 1997 to 2007.
Rodgers attributes most of her success to mentors in the business like General Motors dealer Charles Harrell, who at the time owned a General Motors dealership in Flat Rock, a Detroit suburb.
“I shared my ambitions with him, and he took me under his wing,” recalls Rodgers. She opened Rodgers Chevrolet in 1996.
One of the most recognized African American dealers is Edward Davis, the first Black to own and operate a dealership.
Davis, who migrated to Detroit from Shreveport, Louisiana, started as a salesman at a Detroit dealership in 1937, forced to meet customers in a converted second floor supply room because he was Black. Determined not to be deterred by racism, Davis decided to open his own American car dealership in 1940 to sell Studebakers in Detroit.
Davis stayed with Studebaker until 1956 when the carmaker went out of business. He then opened a Chrysler showroom in Detroit, becoming the first Black in the country with a Big Three franchise.
“The policy had been set that Chrysler Corporation was going to appoint dealers who qualified, regardless of their color,” Davis wrote in his book, “One Man’s Way.”
Davis retired from Chrysler in 1971 and died in 1999 at the age of 88, paving the way for other minority dealers around the country.
One of city’s most celebrated car dealers was Mel Farr. By 1998, his Mel Farr Automotive Group, which began in 1980, posted revenue of more than $500 million, making it one of the top African American businesses in the United States.
The success earned the former Detroit Lions football star the name “Mel Farr your Superstar dealer.” He also contributed to the background on Marvin Gaye’s classic hit “What’s Going On.”
Nate Conyers, who started Conyers Riverside Ford in Detroit, has been called the dean of African American dealers. He began his automotive career in 1970, opening a dealership on West Grand Boulevard and 14th Street and was one of the founding organizers of the Ford Minority Dealers Association.
Conyers operated Riverside Ford on East Jefferson for nearly 20 years until 2003.
Another Detroit-based African American dealer recognized for his achievements in the industry is Jim Bradley of Jim Bradley Pontiac Buick GMC, who became the first Black GM dealer to reach the milestone of 30 consecutive years in business.
Bradley died in 2003, and his business was taken over by Bill Perkins, another well- known African American dealer based in Metro Detroit.
The late Porterfield Wilson was at one time one of the most prominent Black auto dealers. He was in the used car business in Detroit in the 1960s when he was contacted by GM regarding heading a Pontiac dealership. Wilson accepted the offer and later acquired GMC Truck. In addition, he acquired a Mazda franchise in collaboration with Honda.
The St. Clair Shores based Prestige Automotive Group, founded by Gregory Jackson, whose operations have included Prestige Chevrolet and Prestige Pontiac Buick GMC in Ypsilanti, remains the nation’s largest minority-owned auto dealer with more than $646 million in revenues.
In 2004, Prestige became the first Black-owned auto dealer to exceed $1 billion in revenues. Prestige became the fourth company in the history of the Black Enterprise magazine’s “100s” to break the billion-dollar barrier and was named BE’s Company of the Year in 2005.
Another nationally recognized dealership based in Metro Detroit is Avis Ford, founded by Walter Douglas.
Mark Douglas, the son of Walter Douglas and president of the Southfield-based company, said any individual who has a chance to take over a business of this type or of this stature is really just a blessing, regardless of that person’s race.
Douglas also said his dealership has remained at Twelve Mile and Telegraph since 1969, while other types of businesses in that area have come and gone.
“Ultimately to be legacy and have the opportunity to pass on a legacy type business, like the one I’m fortunate enough to be in, is really the blessing,” Douglas said. “Not so much that I’m an African American business owner, but more so the fact that I’m an African American business owner who just happens to be Ford dealer, that just happens to be on one of the most successful corners in Southeast Michigan.
“Based on that, there’s the possibility of not only me benefiting from the legacy, but also having the chance to now leave a legacy has increased that much more. Which is the number one thing I’m looking to try to do.
Because that’s what I was fortunate enough to benefit from. So the least I can do is try to do basically what I’ve been afforded.”