The Year was 1948
Don Lee opened the doors on what would become one of the oldest independent automobile dealerships in the State of Oregon. However, his love of cars and entrepreneurial spirit began years before.
Leaving the Family Farm
Don Lee left the family farm in Minnesota and moved west as a teenager. He started out as a milkman in North Portland. During his daily milk runs, Don took notice of cars for sale along his route. It didn’t take long for him to use the money he’d saved up from his milk deliveries to purchase one of those cars. He leased space from a Union Oil service station and put the car up for sale. After the sale was made, he went and purchased more vehicles. Soon he had about 20 cars for sale on leased space at different gas service stations scattered about Portland.
A Difficult Decision
The initial success of his new business abruptly stopped when Union Oil told Don that they would no longer lease their property for car sales, and he needed to choose between being a car salesman or oilman. Thankfully, in 1948, a sliver of land popped up for sale on North Lombard Street. With all of their savings, Don and wife Beverly, purchased the empty field for $3,000 and moved their cars to the new site. This was the beginning of Don Lee Motors.
Finding good quality used cars was a difficult task early on. Don frequently traveled cross country to pick up vehicles in Chicago. His relatives, still living back east, drove the cars back to Portland with him. They would take five or six cars back on a single trip and drive all day and night until they reached their destination.
The first 15 years of business were most difficult. Beverly said that Don was, “the hardest working man you’d ever see in your life.” But even so, it was hard to get ahead and she begged him to give up the dealership. The year 1949 was a bad one for the car business. Almost over night, car values plummeted and lost half of their value. Most dealers folded under the stress. But not Don. He simply took on more work. After working all day at his dealership, he’d go home and sleep for a few hours and then rush off to another job in construction. Through hard work and long hours, he was able to pull through the tough times. “It was one of my proudest moments when I had paid off my debts and owned the business outright,” Don said.
Cars & Chicken
In the mid 1950’s, a large building was transported down Lombard Street on cement slabs. The building included apartments, an accountant business, and the Broasted Chicken Restaurant. The building was placed right next to Don Lee Motors. Ten years later, the owner of the building and the surrounding lot offered to sell all of the property to Don Lee.
Don’s son, Rod, began working on the lot during summers and after school. He washed and detailed cars as a teenager and took an interest in the business. It wasn’t long before Rod was selling cars and given more responsibilities. Working close with his father, Rod took on his qualities of honesty and fairness. He later became owner of the business after Don’s retirement. Now, Rod’s son Robert has taken to the family business and has become a third generation car salesman.
Generations of families have purchased their vehicles from Don Lee Motors. Don said, “It is this foundation of loyal buyers that made it a success.” Their children, grandchildren, friends and relatives continue to purchase their vehicles from Don Lee Motors some 65 years later. Don and the entire Lee family take great pride in their long reputation of honesty, quality, and integrity that sets them apart from others in the industry.
The 1940 American Bantam Sport Pickup
Only 580 of these vehicles were ever made between the years of 1938 to 1940, and fewer than 40 are believed to be in existence today.
The American Bantam Car Company formed in 1936, but played their largest role in 1940 preparing for the upcoming war effort. The US government wanted a new general purpose vehicle and Bantam was the first to submit their designs. Ford caught on to Bantam’s production and quickly borrowed their ideas in creating their own version. Bantam was the first company to create a jeep, but the US government decided that the company was too small to meet their production needs. So the contract went to Ford Motors to provide the general purpose vehicles for the Allied cause.
The American Bantam Car Company continued to manufacture a variety of vehicles from roadsters to sedans and pickup trucks. However, the company failed to compete with the larger American car companies and went out of business by the mid-1950’s.
The 1940 American Bantam Sport Pickup was acquired by Don Lee Motors in 1955 and has become an icon for the company. You can take a look at the Bantam and other classic cars in the dealership showroom.