Ten years after American commercial production of automobiles began in 1896, Alfred O’Meara Sr. became employee No. 138 on Henry Ford’s assembly line in Detroit. By 1913 he had contracted tuberculosis and, like so many TB sufferers, sought to travel west to dry out his lungs. At the time, Ford shipped cars by rail and they were assembled at their destination. Henry Ford offered him an opportunity to assemble and deliver cars in Colorado. After a few years, he became the first franchise Ford dealer in Colorado.
After making the multiday train trek to Denver, the 23-year-old first lived in a tent near present-day National Jewish Hospital. He was scrappy, born to immigrant parents and blessed with a strong work ethic. He also had inside knowledge of an emerging industry. It was the beginning of a Denver automotive dynasty that celebrates its 110th anniversary this year.
O’Meara Motor Company was located in downtown Denver at 14th and Cleveland Place for about a year before moving to 14th Street and Broadway, anchoring an auto row that lined Broadway and Lincoln Streets for decades.
“He wanted it there because that’s where people who took the trolley got off,” says O’Meara’s grandson, Brian, who is the third-generation Ford dealer. “He’d ride the trolley up and down Broadway talking to people about cars and offering free driving lessons.”
Selling cars in those days involved more than demonstrating the machines. Not many Americans could afford a car, roads and highways weren’t built yet and most still rode horses.
“Back in the day, the used-car manager—also my grandfather—took in horses all the time and then had to figure out what to do with them,” Brian says. “And a demonstration often meant teaching the customer to drive.” Brian has a photo from 1916 when his grandfather sold cars and trucks to Denver Dry Goods, a local department store. Alfred taught all 24 employees how to drive and how to hand-crank the engine.
Wrote the Book on Selling Fords
As the first Ford dealer in Colorado, and one of the first in the nation, Al Sr. had experience and sales savvy that few other dealers could match. He mapped out answers to common objections given by customers and began writing them down, but demand for his stories and scripts quickly ballooned around 1925. Salesmen across the country clamored for Al Sr. to make them widely available. Figuring that the message being delivered by a third party about his success would gain better traction than a book written by a car dealer about his own success, he would use the penname Cloyd F. Woolley and sell the booklets through Woolley & Riblett, Inc. Sales were brisk—having printings of thousands at a time—and distributed to salesmen across the country.
Due to his father’s failing health, Alfred O’Meara Jr. left the University of Notre Dame in 1938 and took control of the dealership at the ripe age of 21. But soon he was drafted and fought in the Pacific.
Al Sr. sprang into action so the family business could survive World War II, Brian says. The day after Pearl Harbor, “my grandfather knew Henry Ford would be making airplanes instead of automobiles. He went out and bought as many used cars and parts as he could find, and a lathe to manufacture parts. He established a business philosophy of being profitable without new vehicles in inventory.” That philosophy has kept O’Meara Ford going through many economic slowdowns.
Following the war, Al Jr. resumed leadership at O’Meara Ford, alongside his brother Gene.
On the Move
In 1953, the dealership moved to make way for a new city library and museum. The business relocated a few times, including when Ford forced the O’Meara family to split the business into individual automobile and heavy-truck dealerships. Brian’s uncle Pete and his son moved the truck business and renamed it Mountain State Ford Trucks.
After college, Brian joined the business full-time in 1968 after his father began having health issues. In 1974, he became general manager. “My dad and I were true partners,” Brian says. “He never got in my way when I started running things and I’m trying to have the same relationship with my sons. The business isn’t complicated, but the industry has changed a lot.”
Al Jr. was the 1976 winner of the TIME Dealer of the Year Award. Both Al Sr. and Al Jr. were recently inducted into the Colorado Auto Dealers Association Hall of Fame.
Brian followed his grandfather’s business philosophy of being profitable even without new-vehicle sales when he built a new service facility in 2001. “Many dealers had a difficult 2008,” he says. “We did not. We had a fabulous year because of our service and parts department.”
The dealership’s 87 service bays were built to ergonomic standards, noise and temperature controlled, with a ventilation system that circulates fresh air every six minutes.
The O’Meara story isn’t complete without mentioning the dealership’s longtime face and distinctive voice: marketing director Bonnie Murray-O’Meara. A former Army sergeant, medic and “Miss Stars & Stripes,” Murray started at O’Meara in 1976. A few years later she was coaching some actors through a TV spot when the cameraman told Brian that Murray really should be doing the commercial. She still writes, produces and edits the commercials today. After many years together, Bonnie and Brian were married on his 70th birthday.
Brian’s sons—Evan and Paige—are now the fourth generation to work in the family business, with Evan’s children, Oscar and Annie, in line as the fifth.
As the O’Meara company moves into its second century of service, Brian will pass leadership duties to eldest son Evan, with support from Paige and Alfred. “It’s what we do,” Brian says. “We’re … passionate about cars, customers, employees and the community in which we work and live, and a terrific family. One grandpa Al would be proud of.”
The dealership’s history page can be found at https://www.omearaford.com/the-history-of-omeara/.
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