See Donahoo's taillights

The Baltimore Sun

I am sitting in the solarium of Scott Donahoo's baronial Cockeysville home, staring up at a moose head that looks like something Sarah Palin brought down on her vacation.

The house is stunning, all glass and stone and burnished wood overlooking Loch Raven Reservoir. "Twelve-thousand square feet of sheer maintenance" is how Donahoo, the celebrity car dealer, describes it.

It even has a name: Hidden Waters. His summer home in Pasadena has a name, too: The Point.

"That's what happens when you become a rich [expletive]," Donahoo says, laughing. "Your houses have names!"

I'm here, trying to take notes with this moose staring at me, because Donahoo has just announced the unthinkable: He's leaving the car business.

A month shy of his 53rd birthday, he's sold his last dealership, Donahoo Ford on Belair Road, where at one time his automotive empire included Foreign Motors Suzuki, Kia and Hyundai, too.

Selling cars made him wealthy, but now he wants to ease off on those 16-hour workdays and concentrate on his growing collision-repair and real estate businesses.

He's also thinking about a radio talk show and even running for political office, which we'll get into in a minute, but which we can tease thusly: Sheila Dixon, don't get too comfy with the new gig, OK?

Still, Donahoo getting out of the car biz is big news. "It's the business that defined me," he says.

But if selling cars defined him, it was his tacky, outrageous TV commercials that turned him into a genuine Baltimore celebrity.

"I learned early on, I was the brand, not the cars," he says. "The brand became me."

His strategy was this: If people noticed him, maybe they'd buy his cars, too.

And people noticed him, all right. How could they not? The commercials burrowed into your brain like some kind of crazed worm.

There was the People's Court take-off where Donahoo plays a judge, the plaintiff and defendant in front of him reciting tales of woe involving a lost job and bankruptcy until the judge looks into the camera and proclaims: "Good people, I'm not here to judge you!"

Then the jury rises and shouts: "Credit? Forget it! Don't sweat it! Everybody rides at Foreign Motors!"

There was the commercial he considers the gold standard of his schlocky oeuvre: Scotty in a hounds-tooth jacket crooning the Spinners' hit "It's a Shame" and lamenting "You tried to buy a vehicle from someone other than me!"

There was the one where Donahoo channels James Brown with a rendition of "I Feel Good" that would have the Godfather of Soul spinning in his grave with lyrics like:

You'll feel good

Scotty said you would

You'll feel nice

She bought a car from me twice ...

"It got to the point, when I came on TV, you were not gonna walk out of the room," Donahoo says. "You were thinking: 'What's that [expletive] gonna do now?'"

For pure cheesiness, Donahoo's spots made the Gebco dancers look like Masterpiece Theatre.

Viewers loved them or hated them. But they worked. He sold a ton of cars and made a ton of money. He got the best tables in restaurants, was mobbed for autographs, and asked to speak to college marketing classes.

Not bad for a guy who grew up poor in a cramped rowhouse in Northwood and barely made it out of Northern High School.

Now, at mid-life, with his three sons pretty much grown up, he's just easing back on the throttle.

"Look, I will always be in business," he says. "One, two or more businesses. Because I like it. It's who I am."

But with a little more time on his hands, why, maybe he can even change the world.

That's why he's so intrigued with politics. He seriously considered a run for mayor of Baltimore a few years ago, before deciding the timing wasn't right. Now the time might be right.

"No question I think my common-sense approach could solve some problems," he says.

A moment later, he laughs and slaps one knee.

"Can you just imagine the campaign commercials!" he roars. "Oh, my God! I don't know what would be funnier - the commercials or the news conferences!"

Later that day, he calls back on his cell phone. It's about his first campaign commercial. He's got an image in his mind.

"Me in a full-length mink and Jimmy Choos, or whatever those shoes are called," he says, referring to the items that got Sheila Dixon in trouble during a recent ethics probe.

If it's a Donahoo ad, there has to be singing, maybe a horn section or even a full orchestra.

"Back-up singers?" I say helpfully.

"Oh, yeah," he says. "Maybe we call 'em the Tax Break-ettes."

The Tax Break-ettes ... that could burrow into your brain for years.

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