Ford Motor Co. employs about 65,000 Americans. Alfred O’Meara Sr. was employee #138 working on Henry Ford’s Detroit assembly line in 1906. By 1913, he had contracted tuberculosis, and like so many TB victims, came to Denver to dry out his lungs. Henry Ford offered him an opportunity to be a dealer. It was the beginning of a Denver automotive dynasty that marked its 100th anniversary June 13th with a big party for customers and plans to continue celebrating all year long.
According to Bud Wells in “The Colorado Car Book,” O’Meara located briefly at 15th and Cleveland Place before moving to 14th and Broadway, anchoring an auto row that lined Broadway and Lincoln for many years.
“He wanted it there because that’s where people who took the trolley got off. He’d ride the trolley up and down Broadway talking to people about cars and offering free driving lessons,” according to O’Meara’s grandson, Brian, who is the third generation Ford dealer. His sons, Evan, Paige and Alfred, are now working in the family business.
Selling cars in those days involved more than demonstrating the machines. “Back in the day the used car manager – also my grandfather – took in horses all the time and then had to figure out what to do with them. And a demonstration often meant teaching the customer to drive,” Brian says. “I have a photo from 1916 when he sold cars and trucks to the Denver Dry Goods. He taught all 24 drivers how to drive.”
Al O’Meara was forward thinking, according to Brian. The day after Pearl Harbor was bombed, “My grandfather knew Henry Ford would be making airplanes instead of automobiles. He went out and bought as many used cars and parts as he could find, and a lathe to manufacture parts. That was how he survived the war without going out of business. He established a business philosophy of being profitable without new vehicles in inventory.” That philosophy has kept O’Meara Ford going through many national automobile strikes and economic slow-downs.
In 1953, Denver leaders condemned the O’Meara site to build a new city library. Brian’s dad, Al O’Meara Jr. relocated to Colfax and Kalamath, staying until a move to Northglenn in 1968. At the same time, Ford forced the O’Meara family to split the business into autonomous automobile and heavy truck dealerships. Brian’s Uncle Pete and his son moved the truck business to 50th and Vasquez and renamed it Mountain State Ford Trucks.
Brian joined the business full-time in 1968. “My dad and I were true partners. He never got in my way when I started running things and I’m trying to have the same relationship with my sons. The business isn’t complicated, but the industry has changed a lot.”
Brian followed his grandfather’s philosophy when he built a new service facility in 2001. “It was a 30-year decision to build a service and parts department that would sustain us if we couldn’t sell new cars. Many dealers had a difficult 2008. We did not. We had a fabulous year because of our parts and service department,” he says. The dealership’s 87 service bays were built to ergonomic standards with a ventilation system that circulates fresh air every six minutes.
The O’Meara story isn’t complete without mentioning the dealership’s long-time face and distinctive voice, Marketing Director Bonnie Murray. A former Army sergeant, medic and “Miss Stars & Stripes,” Bonnie came to Denver in 1975 and started in advertising at O’Meara I 1976. She was coaching a couple of actors through a TV spot in about 1978 when the cameraman told Brian that Bonnie really should be doing the spot. She still writes, produces and edits them. “As long as it works that’s what we’re going to do,” O’Meara says.
That may be many years to come. “God bless Ford Motor Company,” O’Meara says. “We hope it will be another 100 years.”