A lot has changed in the auto sales business since Lou Cohen opened a small used car lot on Liberty Heights Avenue in Baltimore in 1961.
Cohen, now president and CEO of BMW of Towson, was fresh out of the Army when he took his his first job with another dealer before branching out to sell, and eventually lease, cars through his Allstate Leasing.
Customers who used to comparison shop on the lots now browse online. And mechanics have become computer-savvy technicians.
“As a dealer you were constantly inundated with engine, transmission work,” years ago, Cohen said. “Today you don’t see any of that.”
As for customers, “for the most part, they make their decisions as to what they want to buy or think they want to buy prior to coming into the dealership,” he said.
Cohen now heads Priority 1 Automotive Group, which includes nine Maryland dealerships and employs 600 people, selling luxury brands such as Acura, Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mini and Porsche.
The 77-year-old recently was nominated as Maryland’s representative for the 2019 Time Dealer of the Year Award, sponsored by Time magazine and Ally Financial. He is one of 51 dealer nominees from across the country who will be recognized during the National Automobile Dealers Association Show in January in San Francisco.
“I eat and sleep this business,” said Cohen, whose son, Marc, and daughter, Alison, work with him. “I put in a lot of hours, and I’ve done it my whole life and I enjoy it. I can’t get to work early enough.”
Cohen, a 1959 Baltimore City College graduate whose father worked in auto finance and insurance, shifted from used to new car sales in 1969 when he acquired the ABC Chevrolet dealership. He added nine more franchises to his Heritage Auto Group before selling the business in 1997.
He’s struck by how classic versions of the Cadillacs, Ford Thunderbirds and Pontiac GTO’s he sold decades ago for under $3,000 can now fetch in the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
After a brief retirement, Cohen bought the former Brooks BMW, now BMW of Towson, on Kenilworth Drive, the first franchise in the Priority 1 business.
Though much has changed, one perk continues to be test driving new car models. His current favorite is the BMW X4 “sports activity coupe.”
“It handles superbly,” he said. “It’s a completely redesigned model and so nicely appointed and performed so well. I regret I wasn’t on the Autobahn to drive it.”