MINNETONKA -- When cars were hard to get after World War II, Don Sears swapped Holsteins from the family's dairy herd for new Chevys.
In the 1960s, he took Ford Motor Co. executives Henry Ford II, Lee Iacocca and Robert McNamara on a tour of junkyards to show them how much better Chevrolet upholstery held up.
Today, at age 76, Sears has been in the car business more than six decades and still spends six days a week working for Sears Imported Autos, the venerable luxury car dealership he sold to his son-in-law and three sons in 1986.
"It's a great business, a great business," said Sears, who began buying junkers and having them fixed up for resale as a teenager.
Sears sold used cars from a lot on Lake Street in Minneapolis for 15 years before he got into luxury cars in 1971 when he purchased Walker Motors in Wayzata, the only Mercedes-Benz/BMW dealership in the Twin Cities area. Three years later, he moved the dealership to Minnetonka and put his name on it.
But it wasn't until recently that Sears -- a modest fellow who dropped out of high school at 15 to work on the family farm -- actually claimed a Mercedes (used) as his personal car.
"Every day I drive a different car, or most days," Sears said. If he's not bringing a neighbor's car in for servicing, Sears drives cars off the dealership's used car lot. "Ford pickups if I have something to haul. I drive used cars and used trucks."
He never felt he needed a car with fancy trimmings.
"I remember the cost. If you start out with 200 bucks and you have to beat all your checks to the bank, then that makes you appreciate it," he explained.
Sears and his wife, Eldora, still live on the farm near Ellsworth, Wis., where Sears grew up and farmed with his dad. Their sons, Dale, Gary and Kevin, are absentee part-owners of the car dealership and raise beef cattle. Don Davidson, married to the Sears' daughter, Joanne, now runs Sears Imported Autos, where revenue grew from $30 million in 1994 to more than $115 million in 2002.
The dealership sells an average of 185 vehicles per month, about half of them new.
"We're selling as many new cars a month now as I used to sell in a year, which to me is awesome," Sears said.
Over the years, Sears has seen -- and helped initiate -- a lot of changes in the car business. Early on, his dealership offered emergency roadside service, airport drop-off and pick-up and free use of loaner cars. That continues today.
When Sears operated the Lake Street lot, he had a large wholesale business and bought a lot of cars from lease companies.
While at a convention of the Independent Auto Dealers in 1961, a Ford representative asked him why Fords were selling so poorly.
Sears said he'd be willing to talk with Henry Ford II directly, so Ford Motor Co. brought him to Dearborn, Mich., for a week. The visits continued every three months through the early 1960s, said Sears, who was featured in Ford's national magazine ads along with five other young dealers the company brought in as advisers.
Sears recalled telling the Ford executives how much he was aggravated by their tiny key on the left side of the steering wheel.
"I pointed out, why would you do that? Most people are right-handed," Sears said. "Henry Ford had some engineers and he said, 'I want to see that changed in the next model car.' And in the next model car it was over on the other side where everybody else's was."
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