Past Times – True Family Tradition
Story by Megan Whitehead | Jun 27, 2016
Photography by Keith Borgmeyer
Riley celebrates 80 years of serving Jefferson City.
by Jennifer Bondurant
photos provided by The Riley Family
Every September in the 1950s and ’60s, the new models from Chevrolet rolled in to Jefferson City at night — under wraps. Mike Riley remembers his grandfather, Don F. Riley, taking the vehicles to his house and hiding them in his backyard until new car announcement day.
When the day came for the unveiling, crowds of local people, even the mayor and other dignitaries, would turn out for the unveilings at the dealership. The covers would come off to reveal the gleaming chrome and rich colors of the new models such as the Corvette, Chevelle, Corvair, El Camino, and Impala.
Mike and his brothers, Kevin and Carey, were in the crowd most of those years. They would watch their dad, Don B. Riley, and their grandfather revel in the moment — the start of the new model year — and work their way through the crowd to welcome friends and customers. “It’s one of the things I really miss from when I was younger,” Mike says.
Don F. Riley was born in 1896 in Jackson, Michigan. As a young man, he worked for General Motors, before the Great Depression, with dreams of owning his own dealership. In 1936, when a dealership became available, he relocated to Jefferson City, bringing his wife, Anita, and two sons, Donald and Tommy. With the purchase of the Burnett Chevrolet Co., Don laid the foundation for a family business that has now spanned 80 years.
“It will be operated along successful and proven business lines,” Don said in Jefferson City’s The Sunday News and Tribune on September 27, 1936. “Only genuine parts will be sold and high grade oils and grease will be retailed. Our slogan will be, Specializing in Personal Service.”
Don changed the dealership’s name to the Commonwealth Chevrolet Company, in honor of the Commonwealth of Virginia, where the General Motors financial home office was located. In 1949, he changed the name again, this time to Riley Chevrolet.
The dealership offered new and used car sales, parts, and service from its location at 216 E. Capitol. A newspaper ad from the fall of 1936 highlighted used cars for sale, from a 1928 Ersking Coach for $35 to a 1935 Chevrolet Master Sport coupe with 15,000 miles for $535 that had be cleared out of the way for new models arriving.
Carey Riley says the dealership was where the parking garage on Madison Street and E. Capitol is now, extending back to Commercial Avenue. The building had an open stairway in the middle, leading to offices upstairs. A repair shop (the service center) was adjacent to the showroom floor, closed from view by a heavy sliding door.
“You could get a Coca-Cola from the vending machine in the back for seven cents,” Mike recalls.
The brothers remember their grandfather’s stories of the car business during World War II, when there was no inventory of new cars. “After the war, the plants started back up, and people would come in and put down a deposit and their name on a list for the new cars coming in,” says Mike. “Others would try to come with a bigger deposit to get ahead, but our grandfather wouldn’t allow it.”
According to The Sunday News and Tribune’s September 20, 1959 article highlighting the dealership’s 23rd birthday, Riley Chevrolet had sold thousands of vehicles since 1936.
In 1960, Riley Chevrolet changed locations, moving to Highway 50 and Missouri Boulevard, across from St. Mary’s Hospital, and moved again in 1970 to its current Christy Drive location, newly remodeled and expanded in 2013.
Over the years, the Riley family car business has included several different franchises, including Volkswagen, Audi, Oldsmobile, Subaru, and Honda motorcycles. Under the leadership of the three Riley brothers, Riley Chevrolet offers the newest line of Chevrolet, Buick, GMC, Cadillac, Toyota, and Scion brands, in addition to pre-owned vehicles and a state-of-the-art collision center repairing both foreign and domestic brands.
The brothers had each begun working in the family business by the time they were 12 or 13 years old by washing cars. They say that “Pop,” Don F. Riley, and their dad taught them the values they still use to run the business today.
“They instilled honesty and integrity in us and in the employees, and they preached safety — employees caring for one another,” says Kevin.
Integrity was built by doing the little things right. “If a customer has a question that you can’t answer, you ask their permission to get the answer,” Kevin says. “[Dad and Pop] taught us to be at work on time and not shut the doors on a customer, even if it is after hours. We continue to do that.”
“They taught us that business is all about taking care of the customer,” Carey says.
While many things have changed about the car business since 1936, the Rileys say that the importance of customer relationships and giving back to the community have remained constant.
That, and a love of cars. The muscle cars from the mid to late ’60s, the ones they watched the covers come off of on announcement days, remain their favorites: for Kevin, the Corvette; for Carey, the Chevelle SS 454; and for Mike, the 1968 Camaro Z28.
“Dad enjoyed fast cars too,” Kevin says, pointing out family tradition.
Family tradition. That ideal is the basis for Riley’s prolonged success. Their business is a staple of Jefferson City and will continue to be with the dedication and ingenuity of the Riley family.