Auto salesman Bob Bell, known for TV commercials, dies at 78

Robert Lee "Bob" Bell, who began his career in auto sales in the 1950s and went on to own the Bob Bell Automotive Group, one of the state's largest car dealers, died Sunday of leukemia at theUniversity of Maryland Medical Center.

The Ellicott City resident, who earlier had lived in Laurel, was 78.

Born and raised in Alexandria, Va., Mr. Bell was appointed a Capitol Hill U.S. Senate page and graduated from the Senate Page School.

"He was a page for Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn," said a daughter, Mary Catherine Bishop of Ellicott City.

Mr. Bell served with the Army Corps of Engineers during the Korean War, attaining the rank of sergeant. He later earned degrees in business and architecture from the University of Virginia.

In 1956, Mr. Bell was a young management trainee at Ford Motor Co. working for Lee Iacocca, who was then a district manager and later became president of Ford.

Tiring of the corporate culture, in 1962, Mr. Bell joined with Thomas E. Lynch, a fellow trainee, and with a combined $133,000 they purchased Academy Garage in Laurel, which they renamed Academy Ford, and went into business selling Fords.

They expanded the business in 1979 when they purchased Schulte Ford on Ritchie Highway in Glen Burnie. After they amicably parted ways in 1982, Mr. Lynch took ownership of Academy Ford, and Mr. Bell took over the Glen Burnie operation, which became Bob Bell Ford.

Mr. Bell purchased Legum Chevrolet/Nissan on Eastern Avenue for $11.5 million in 1989, one of the largest Chevy dealerships in the nation, which propelled him overnight to be Maryland's largest automotive dealer at the time.

With expansion came a new name — Bob Bell Automotive Group — which at his death included seven franchises with dealerships in Baltimore, Glen Burnie, Bel Air and Essex that sold Fords, Hyundais, Kias, Chevys and Nissans.

Mr. Bell was best known for his appearances in TV ads for his dealerships, dressed in a pink or black tuxedo, wearing sunglasses and playing a piano.

"On camera, Mr. Bell is soft-spoken and sincere — a sharp contrast to the widespread image of the white-shoed and white-belted, promise-the-moon-and-stars dealer," said a 1989 Baltimore Sun profile. "In person, he's more casual, working in shirt-sleeves. … A hint of a Southern drawl seeps into his conversation."

"He didn't play the piano but made it look like he was playing," said Ms. Bishop, who added that her father collaborated with his ad agency in creating many of the dealership's ads.

The commercials often featured snappy jingles such as "Keep those clunkers rolling, rolling, rolling to Bob Bell," "It's always right at Bob Bell," or "There's a whole lot of shaking going on at Bob Bell Ford."

"He was an extremely personable and charismatic man. He was down-to-earth," said J.P. Bishop, his son-in-law, who is president of Bob Bell Auto Group. "To him, a handshake mattered, which in today's world was a throwback. That's the way he did business. Today, it's all lawyers."

Mr. Bishop, who has worked for Mr. Bell for 20 years, said he had an outgoing personality.

"He loved talking to people. He liked matching up what they needed to what he had," said Mr. Bishop.

Mr. Bishop said he enjoyed spending a 10-day winter holiday in Florida before returning to work.

"He'd come back energized and he personally sold 10 cars a month. He just didn't sit in the office and loved getting out on the floor selling," he said.

Concerned about the public's image of auto salesmen, Mr. Bell said in the 1989 interview that his goal was to hire more intelligent and responsible individuals who looked at selling cars as a lifetime profession, not a quick way to make a buck.

"We need to improve our image," he said, explaining the public's perception of dealers as being "rip-off artists."

"When my attorney friends get high and mighty, I tell them there are a helluva lot more attorneys in jail than auto dealers," he said.

In the 1989 interview, Mr. Bell explained his philosophy of why he liked being in the business.

"The American public likes to drive new automobiles," he said. "It always has and always will."

Mr. Bell had not retired at his death.

His hobbies included owning and driving high-performance cars and deep-sea fishing. He had been a 1992 winner of the White Marlin Open.

One of Mr. Bell's catches, which hung in his office, was a 15-foot, 1,234-pound black marlin he landed off Australia in 1988.

The Ellicott City resident was a communicant of St. Louis Roman Catholic Church, 2500 Clarksville Pike, where a Mass of Christian burial will be offered at 10:30 a.m. Thursday.

Also surviving are his wife of 60 years, the former Rosemarie Carter; four other daughters, Susan Davis of Columbia, Nancy Fitzpatrick of Woodbine, Patricia Flynn of Herndon, Va., and Teresa Moorby of Grantwood, Tenn.; 19 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.