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RILEY, John William

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Brent Fessler, crew member, David Powers, and John Riley. Photo courtesy: John Riley

RILEY, John William. (Dubuque, IA, Feb. 15, 1937-- ). Businessman and pioneering auto racing participant. The following entry was submitted by John Riley on January 14, 2008. Be sure to also view POWERS AND RILEY RACING TEAM for the story of John Riley's impact on the racing industry.

I started my interest in mechanics at about age 10. I lived just down the street from the Mobil gas station on the corner of Asbury and St Ambrose, and in the late 1940s it was common for gas stations to have mechanics to overhaul cars. One of those mechanics was Marv Amos, and he was also a stock car driver. Marv was an idol for a 10 year old, and he and his crew would let me clean greasy parts from cars on which they were working. My mother was ecstatic! My first experience as a mechanic started when I was about 13, and I got a Whizzer motor bike. Paul Bodish Sr. worked on Whizzer bikes in his home garage on Kaufman Ave, and I would go down and get parts and advice from him. He had a lot of work and asked me if I wanted to help him, I don’t recall getting paid. I probably got some free parts.

My first real job as a mechanic was the summer of 1953 with Burt Steve Garage. At that time he was located on Highway 20 about where the Fairfield Inn is today. My job was to lie under the car and adjust the rod bearings on an engine overhaul job. I worked late at night on my hot rod 36 Plymouth and Burt found me asleep under a car. He fired me on the spot! When we get together today we sure laugh about that.

My next part time job while in school was in the body shop at the Chrysler Plymouth dealership on Iowa Street between 2nd and 3rd. I realized in the three years I worked there I didn’t want to work in the body repair business the rest of my life. My first full time job was in that body shop after graduation at $1 per hour, but it only lasted a couple of weeks as the business closed.

Locust Street site. The two insets with the windows were overhead doors. The one on the right was the garage bay for the gas station. The one on the left was used by Riley.
Business site on 12th and Main in 1955-1956

While working at the dealership I met a mechanic by the name of Cecil Jones who worked in the mechanical service shop. He was doing TV repair in his home part time and wanted to sell his mechanic’s tools and work on TVs full time. He suggested we start a tune up shop together and he would sell me his tools.

We rented a stall in the gas station on the northwest corner of 2nd and Locust St. and opened the first Riley Auto Service. In the next six months I bought out Cecil and moved to a four stall garage on the corner of 12th and Main. It is now White’s Florist. At the time it was the Desoto Plymouth dealer and I worked on their cars free for the rent. With four stalls and increased business I hired my first employee, Glen Siefker. This location only lasted about six months as the Desoto Plymouth dealer went bankrupt and I lost the garage space.

Location at 800 Kaufmann

For the next three years I worked as a mechanic for Midway Motors on the corner of 18th and Elm streets. While at Midway two things happened that changed my life. The most important was that Ann and I were married December 21, 1957.

The second change came as my boss Elmer Erner wanted me to start to repair automatic transmissions on the used cars we were selling. I was buying parts and getting advice from Maynard Keehner at M-K AUTOMATIC TRANSMISSION SERVICE. This was a budding new business as automatic transmissions were becoming popular and needed repair. I started working part time nights and weekends for M-K. The transmission shop was up a lane in the 800 block of Kaufman Ave.

20th and White St.

In September of 1958 I tired of working for someone else. Ann and I rented a six car garage on 20th and White St. and opened the next Riley’s Auto Service. The garage was behind a gas station on 20th St now occupied by Taco John’s. We worked primarily on automatic transmissions and had 2 employees, one being my boyhood friend Sid Poquette. I was still working at M-K part time nights.

Location at 840 Garfield

After a year of operation, Maynard and I decided to merge our two businesses. We moved Riley Auto Service to the location on Kaufmann Ave. and renamed the combined businesses M-K Matic. In 1960 we built a new and modern shop at 840 Garfield St. I owned and managed the shop with Maynard and worked as a transmission mechanic for the next eight years.

Business site from 1969 to 1983,

In 1968 my brother Jim and I, along with Maynard, built a small used car building along side of the transmission shop on Garfield and started fixing up and selling a few used cars on a part time basis. We had one part time salesman, Bruce Watters.

The used car business expanded and we rented the DOG N' SUDS drive-in at 800 Rhomberg Ave, and moved the used car business over there in 1969. I was working at the transmission shop part-time and the rest of the time at the used car lot. Brother Jim worked full time as an electrician and after work he came to the used car lot to do the books. We added a full time salesman when we moved. Our primary business was selling performance cars to young guys. In 1970 I moved to the used car business full time.

In 1972 the performance car craze had lost all its steam to high insurance and emission controls. We were looking for something new and a guy came through selling Subaru franchises. It was a front drive car; we thought hills and snow--why not? It turned out to be a great decision. The gas crisis didn’t hurt either! Brother Jim retired from the electrical business in 1973 and joined us full time. We also added to our service garage and hired two full time mechanics, Carl Severson and Shawn Fluhr. We promoted salesmen Gene Pfab to parts and service manager. 1975 brought us a Mazda franchise and I sold my interest in M-K Matic. Maynard sold Ann & me his interest in MK MATIC AUTO MART. Ralph Kluseman Jr. joined us in 1975 as sales manager and in 1977 Baird Sessions as parts and service manager. We operated the next few years with between seven and eight employees and with great success.

The location at 1975 JFK was used from 1983 to 1998.
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding

During the 1982 time frame Ralph Kluesman Sr. started suggesting that the Clemens Oldsmobile Store was for sale and that we should buy it. After much thought and negotiating, we decided to take a chance. We moved our Mazda/Subaru Store from Rhomberg Ave. and melded the two businesses together including all thirty-three employees. We changed the name to Riley’s Auto Sales and started operation at 1975 JFK on July 5, 1983.

It was thought at the time that it was the first time in America an import auto dealer bought an Oldsmobile franchise and added it to an import store. Oh how things have changed! Daughter Lisa Beatty joined the company in 1986; she became office manager and brought us into the computer age. Lisa was with us about 5 years, and because both she and her Uncle Jim both worked in the financial area of the business they became great friends. Carol Backus joined the company in 1990 and was named comptroller, Carol was one of the most important additions to our management team ever! We enjoyed great business from 1983 to 1995.

Riley's auto dealership in 2008.

In 1995 we purchased an operating mobile home park on Hwy 20 just past Wal-Mart with plans to operate the park for 2 yrs and then construct a new dealership. In 1996 son Jim joined Brother Jim and me in the business. In the fall of 1997 we started construction on the new dealership and opened in April of 1998. Brother Jim died in January 1998 and didn’t get to see the new project completed. He was sorely missed by both Jim Jr. and me as he was an important part of the business. He and I were partners for thirty great years.

In 1998 my son Jim bought 50% of the business from Ann and me. Jim worked in a Nissan dealership in Ames, Iowa after college for four years before joining us. He was convinced that the future for our business was our import franchises and because the Oldsmobile business had been so good since 1983, we had neglected our Subaru Mazda sales. Jim immediately started to correct that.

It was a wise decision as in December 2001 General Motors dropped the bomb on us. Oldsmobile was closing. Daughter Kate Riley joined our team in 2002 as customer relations manager and that gave me the privilege of working in business with all the members of our talented and hard working family. We terminated our Oldsmobile franchise in 2003, and immediately lost much of our service business. It was a mighty tough four years!

In 2005 we purchased our Mitsubishi franchise and that increased our service business. The franchise had been operating across the street from us by the Yager family, and they had sold quite a few Mitsubishi vehicles that needed service.

In January of 2006 I sold my half of the business to my friend, Jeff Haun, and he and Jim became partners.

My life long business partner, supporter and wife Ann spent her life raising our children and running our home as I was too often busy with other things. She handled the most important job of our lifetime. Ann and I own the Dealership facility, and I am still involved at the store every day.