The lot is bare – not a diesel pickup truck in sight.
The show room is empty – not a deal in the making anywhere.
Salem’s auto industry has seen the closure of an era with the shuttering of the Withnell Dodge dealership, a mainstay on Southeast Commercial Street.
Now, Dodges and Rams will be parked at Roberson Motors, which reported on its website that it had acquired the franchise effective March 1. That dealership is on Southeast Ryan Drive at Mission Street.
“It’s just the right time” according to a Facebook post from David Withnell, who succeeded his father Dick as owner of the franchise in 2002.
The family company will continue to operate Withnell Hyundai at 1996 Mission St. S.E.
The acquisition brings together two long-time Salem families from the auto world.
Earl Roberson founded Roberson Motors in 1961, operating for years on a site between the Marion and Center Street bridges in downtown Salem. His son Mike, succeeded him and now a third generation, Brett Roberson, is an owner of the company.
Roberson said he’s long had a “friendly, competitive” relationship with Dave Withnell and they talked for years about merging or one buying out the other.
Roberson noted the “dual facilities” to sell and service vehicles that the two dealerships had to maintain. He said changes in the auto industry in recent years made a combination a good move.
“Franchises have kind of changed. There are fewer competing vehicles,” Roberson said. “We used to compete along certain model lines” but such side-by-side models under different brands have been disappearing.
“It’s really difficult to survive without all the brands,” Roberson said. “The dream was for one of us to put all the brands together.”
He said the deal to acquire the Withnell franchise was set in motion a few months ago with a call from Dave Withnell. Roberson was receptive.
“It’s been a dream of our family to have Dodge and Ram,” Roberson said.
Dick Withnell, who bought the Dodge dealership in 1980, said the deal “just made sense. Roberson has a great reputation.”
He said that “business wise, I have no second thoughts. I was just a straight up business transaction that was a win-win.”
To reflect the change, Roberson has modified its name to Roberson Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram.
He said the Mission Street site can handle the increase in inventory, but some building expansion is likely in the coming months.
On moving day, drivers shuttled about 80 vehicles from the Withnell dealership to the Mission Street location.
“It was a fun day,” he said.
Withnell, a Salem philanthropist and volunteer, bought the dealership in 1980 from Emerson Teague.
Withnell recounted his evolution into the car business in an oral history recorded last year at his alma mater, Linfield College.
VIDEO: Dick Withnell oral history
He described time in the banking business, including handling repossessed cars, before going into the car business in Salem in 1972. He has often cited Lee Iaccoca, who led Chrysler from 1978 until 1992, as a mentor
He has continued serving a variety of nonprofit boards and contributing to nonprofits.
Roberson said his father and Withnell often collaborated on charitable projects, such as helping fund the new Union Gospel Mission in Salem.
Withnell still maintains his memento-filled office at the dealership building on Commercial. He said he’ll be considering what to do with the 4.5-acre site that he and his wife, Gayle, own.
“Maybe when they get full at the convention center, we can offer parking,” Withnell joked.
Contact Editor Les Zaitz by email: [email protected]
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Les Zaitz is editor and CEO of Salem Reporter. He co-founded the news organization in 2018. He has been a journalist in Oregon for nearly 50 years in both daily and community newspapers and digital news services. He is nationally recognized for his commitment to local journalism. He also is editor and publisher of the Malheur Enterprise in Vale, Oregon.