From Point A to Point B: Kelley’s Report for Subscribers of the Kelley Kar Blue Book, Los Angeles, 15 January 1929

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Being primarily a used-car dealer, he wasn’t nearly as well-known as Don Lee (Cadillac), Earl C. Anthony (Packard), or Paul G. Hoffman (Studebaker), but Ransom Leslie Kelley was quite a remarkable figure in the auto sales business during the Roaring Twenties and, with his brother Sidney (Buster), well beyond.

Tonight’s featured object from the museum’s holdings is the 15 January 1929 issue of his “Kelley’s Report,” which was occasionally sent to subscribers of the Kelley Kar Blue Book, a price guide and manual for used cars that evolved into the Kelley Blue Book, still a source for car values and other information nearly a century after the first edition was published in 1926.

The Kelley family enumerated in the 1900 census at Richwoods, Arkansas, east of R. Leslie’s birthplace of Ash Flat in the north-central section of the state.

Kelley was born in 1897 in Ash Flat, Arkansas, a town in the north-central part of the Razorback State not far from the Missouri border, to Mary Frances Williams and John D. Kelley, the latter a Methodist minister for many years. Kelley, however, left home at 17 and, by one account provided by him,

When I landed in Los Angeles in 1914, I was just a green country lad from the pine woods of Arkansas. I had no money and no job, but I did own an old flivver . . . I reconditioned these cars [two used ones he’d purchased after overhauling and selling another] and sold them. With the money I bought other used cars and presently found myself making enough money to pay my way through college. This marked the beginning of my business career.

Kelley was a student at the University of Southern California when he registered for the draft in September 1918 as the First World War was nearly at an end and, when the federal census was taken two years later, his occupation was given as “store proprietor.”

Kelley’s World War I registration from 12 September 1918 when he was a student at the University of Southern California and about to enter into the used car business on a very modest scale.

This was the Kelley Kar Company, the modest origins of which included operations at a rented site on Olive Street near 12th Street. An early advertisement from fall 1921 stated that offerings were not from a sale, but, rather, “typical everyday opportunities,” while it was added that “we can’t give you something for nothing—nor can anyone else—But every car we sell is good or we will make it good.

Used car dealers have always had a wide range of trustworthiness, honesty and reliability, but Kelley, who was later joined by his younger brother Sidney, also known as Buster, became rapidly known as an authority on used car values, while adopting an early motto of “Every Customer a Friend.”

An early Kelley Kar Company ad, Los Angeles Record, 26 November 1921.

In early 1922, his sales manager, W.E. Goodman, told the Los Angeles Times that the new year would be a record one for used car dealers, including Kelley Kar, and added, “our poilicy of guaranteeing our used cars and giving the customer every possible service and attention has gained us many friends, and I belive that this year will see our policy in general use by most of the reliable dealers in the business.”

One of the concepts utilized by Kelley Kar to foster a sense of trust with customers was that guarantee presented visually with a blue ribbon, signifying first place in contests as well as the highest quality for products and services. By the mid-1920s, the company grew so rapidly that a larger location was found on Figueroa Street just south of Pico Boulevard, where the Convention Center is now, with a branch down the street near Washington Boulevard, where the Mercedes-Benz of Los Angeles dealership stands today.

Kelley with two happy buyers at the newly opened showroom on Figueroa Street where the (formerly Staples) Center is situated, Los Angeles Express, 29 August 1928.

Sales manager W.R. Price, a veteran of 20 years in selling used cars on his own and for manufacturer, was said, in a November 1925 article in the Los Angeles Express, to have, since he joined Kelley Kar eight months prior, “enlarged its main salesroom . . . to three times its original size, besides opening a branch . . .” The following year, Kelley issued his first blue book and it quickly became a popular resource for used car values.

In early February 1928, the Times reported that an 1890s rooming house on Figueroa, just south of 12th Street and where the (formerly Staples) Center is today, was being razed for a new 20,000 square foot structure for Kelley Kar and it was added the firm, less than a decade after its founding, sold 2,500 vehicles the prior year. In mid-April, the grand opening wsa held for the new facility and included a live broadcast over several radio stations (that technology itself only being eight years old in terms of commercial broadcasting.)

Another Kelley Kar ad, Los Angeles Times, 12 December 1928.

Kelley told the Times that the salesroom was the biggest in the world and had several hundred cars on display. The dome-ceiling structure “is unique in decoration” with an advanced lighting system and a special layout for that many vehicles. Offices were in a balcony area and a garage and mechanical department were at the rear.

1928 was also when the first edition of “Kelley’s Report” was published. The four-page publication offered news from auto manufacturers with respect to production, new or revised models, and other information, though the reports did vary widely. For example, Auburn, a make few know about now, reported a December production output of 1,400 cars with a new model 120 for 1929 replacing its model 115. A new chassis design was to provide more strength and reduce “shimmy” during operation, while prices were reduced to $1795 to $2095 for six different styles.

Franklin, another long-gone make, just announced three new models with air-cooled engines with the cheaper one having an external gear-type transmission and the others featuring internal versions. Prices ranged from $2190 to $2970, the latter being a limousine edition. Pierce-Arrow was in production for new eight-cylinder cars that were upgrades from the six-cylinder versions, though “typically, Pierce-Arrow in appearance.” The bigger engines generated 125 horsepower and prices ranged from a club brougham at $2775 up to a 7-passenger enclosed limosuine at $5750.

Among the manufacturers more familiar to us today, Buick cranked out 13,000 vehicles in December and a new four-passenger couple was in production and priced at $1445. Cadillac-La Salle shipped out some 2,350 cars, while Chevrolet’s output was about 30,000 of the new six-cylinder models, for which it anticipated delivering 76,000 units in January. Dodge was pumping out some 600 cars each day and the new Dodge Six “shows its Chrysler heritage in the narrow profile radiation incorporated in all Chrysler products,” while generating 58 horsepower. Bodies were also of monopiece development and there with eight types seating from two to five passengers and prices wer to be announced in a few days.

Ford, not surprisingly, dwarfed all competitors in sheer output, with 120,000 vehicles of the assembly line in December and the company was also distinguished in its “factory operating 6 and 6-day week, day and night shifts, with some departments on 24-hour shifts.” The Pontiac Big Six line of cars was to deliver about the 20th and included a new engine and redesigned crank shaft, piston pins, intake valves and other elements. Six body types were available with the coupe and two-door sedan priced at $745.

Oldsmobile closed for a manufacturing equipment rearrangement, but production recently resumed for a new line, which offered the same engine but reworked components that “add materially to performance.” One chassis carried seven standard, seven special, and seven deluxe models and new features included improved sun visors, adjustable steering columns and driver’s seat, and “subdued green light” for the instrument panel. Prices were cut and ranged from $875 to $1035. Plymouth also shut down in December for inventory purporses, but still manufactured about 5,500, and the company just announced price cuts of $25 to $40.

Studebaker, a big name then and which stopped production in the mid-Sixties, produced 250 cars per day in December and announced the new Commander and President series at the end of the year. The former offered six and eight-cylinder models, with adjustable steering wheels and front seats, as well as a safety plate glass windshields, while the latter had eight-cylinder engines generating 114 horsepower “by improving carburetion and manifolding,” while “a novel crank and lever brake mechanism” allowed “for smoother and softer braking.” Prices for the Commander six-cylinder models went from $1350 to $1525, while the eight-cylinder versions ranged from $1495 to $1675. The President models went from as low as $1785 to $2575.

Walter P. Temple’s favorite car was his Locomobile (the name was a cross between “locomotive” and “automobile”) and the company, a marquee of Durant Motors, was reported to produce 8 to 10 cars a day. A new 8-88 model, with (you guessed it!) eight cylinders produced 115 horsepower. There was a new offering in that “a monogram crest appears for the first time on Locomobile product” and it was added that “bodies are of custom design, and distinctly Locomobile with prices to be announced later (it came out at $2650).

The report also had a short notice about Kelley’s Blue Book Plan, which offered to subscribers by request, but which was a free service. It was claimed that “every salesman on your force can make you ten dollars a day more money than he is earning for you now—and at the same time make more money for himself” through “the ONLY service offering you a real SELLING PLAN that has been proved and time-tried.”

Finally, there is a table of new car sales by make for November and for the eleven months to that date in 1928 for some fifty manufacturers, with some recording no or few sales for that month and a few selling very few units during the entire year. For example, Mercedes-Benz only sold two cars in November and a half-dozen for the year, though that was almost certainly a question of availability and, presumably, cost, for export. There were four Locomobiles sold for the month and 166 for the year-to-date, while Rolls-Royce sold five for the month and 33 through November.

Record, 6 February 1929.

Two makes that became, in 1928-1929, among the rare examples of new vehicles sold by Kelley Kar included Chandler, of which 75 were sold statewide in November and 970 for the year-to-date and Falcon-Knight which sold 9 and 493, respectively. Better known, if more expensive bands, like Cadillac (175/2,094), La Salle (207/1,849), Lincoln (65/609), Pierce-Arrow (31/415), and Stutz (21/202), were also low sellers.

The car makers who registered sales in the four figures for November were Buick (1,218/14,323), Chevrolet (1,275/35,077), Dodge (1,413/10,101), Ford (3,893/20,989) and Pontiac (1,082/8,192). Obviously, in terms of moving product, almost no company could touch Ford, which rolled out enormous numbers of low-priced, but also reliable, vehicles, excepting Chevy, which sold about a third what Ford did for the month, but was some 70% higher for the year-to-date. Total car sales in the Golden State were over 16,800 in November and just shoy of 180,000 fo the eleven-month period—presumably a large percentage of these were from Los Angeles city and county, a car-centric region from the beginning of the automobile age.

Record, 11 March 1929.

About a month after the publication of “Kelley’s Report,” Les, as he was commonly known, was appointed the automotive tax assessor for California, based on the fact that he was considered a “nationally known automotive authority. The Los Angeles Record of 6 February, in reporting his new role, added that “Kelley’s figures will be used exclusively by all counties in levying the 1928 tax on automobiles” and in March that paper spoke to the 32-year old about his rapid rise in the business and he provided them the quotes cited above.

In early November, just days after the crash of the stock market in New York that ushered in the Great Depression, Kelley Kar had a big grand opening for its second location, up the street on Figueroa and Tenth. In addition to publicizing music, gifts, lights, stars and fun at the event, the company told potential visitors to “Celebrate today’s football victory with us tonight,” this referring to Kelley’s alma mater, the “Thundering Herd” of USC and the expected victory againt Cal, given their dominance during a undefeated campaign to date.

Times, 2 November 1929.

The Bears, however, scored a shocking victory at the Coliseum, triumphing 15-7. The Trojans went on to lose two weeks later in Chicago to Notre Dame, 13-12, but went to capture its last three contests, all at home, and then walloped Pitt, 47-14, in the 1930 Rose Bowl (Pitt was still national champs because bowl games were not considered in the rankings, though many later reviews determined that USC was the nation’s best team for 1929.)

As for Kelley and his company, he continued to run it for about another decade, though his younger brother Buster became moe heavily involved during the Depression years, taking control of both the dealership and the Blue Book when Les stepped back from active management, though he and Buster later ran a very successful Ford dealership as part ofthe Kelley Kar enterprise.

Kelley and his family were enumerated in Beverly Hills in the 1930 census with well-known architect Aleck Curlett across the street and famed comedian Stan Laurel, of Laurel and Hardy, two houses down.

Les retired in 1962 and provided money for a family health center and clinic at Santa Monica Hospital as well as for the restoration of the famous Hollywood[land] sign. Buster and two sons, however, continued with involvement with the Kelley Blue Book, which was acquired by Auto Trader in 2010 and both are now part of Cox Automotive, Inc.

This edition of “Kelley’s Report” is a great piece of 1920s Los Angeles automotive history, including the remarkable story of its founder.

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