In his twenty four years in the retail car business, Bob Neal achieved a number of firsts and special distinctions. As you review his business career, it is evident that Bob Neal was a 'risk taker' with excellent instincts for business.
Born in Texas, he attended Houston Tillison College in Austin, Texas where he graduated in 1954. After serving two years in the military, Neal moved to Chicago and held a number of jobs; e.g. drove a bus, school teacher etc. But with the influx of import vehicles, he believed there would be a need to service these 'unique' vehicles and decided to open a service repair operation with a focus on Renaults.
Sometime in early 1962, Neal was contacted by British Car to determine his interest in representing them (Triumph) in his market. With a total investment of $20,000, Bob Neal opened Chatham Motors at 7700 Cottage Grove on the Southside of Chicago. Although the volumes were small, it provided credibility to his operation.
It is a well known proverb that 'success breeds success' and so it was with Bob Neal. Subsequently, he was contacted by Toyota which was having difficulty in finding existing dealers to represent them because of their product reputation and the fact they were an import .
After a visit to Japan, Neal stated that "Frankly, I was impressed with what they were doing, and decided to give it a shot, one of the best decisions I ever made." In August 1967, he was awarded the Toyota franchise, the first African-American to have done so. With the energy embargo of 1974, the country turned to fuel efficient vehicles. Toyota cars were in high demand and Bob Neal was well positioned to meet the needs of his consumer base.
In July of 1973, when he learned the Pontiac dealership in his area was available, Neal acquired it and dualed it with his Toyota operation. Although both GM and Toyota were not happy with this decision, he realized it was the only way to maximize his profit opportunities – and he did just that with his many import lines.
In 1976, he was offered the Jaguar franchise and took it. Again, very small volume but helped build the reputation of his business. And in 1978 when Dodge became available, Neal acquired that franchise also. At the same time with the growing interest in import franchises, Neal took on a number of niche import makes, e.g. Simca, Sunbeam, Roots Group.
The next major acquisition occurred in February 1979 when he acquired Honda. This enabled him to purchase a second facility on Stony Island which he named Competition Motors. He was the first African-American to represent Honda albeit by only thirty days as the Wilson's in Detroit received a Honda franchise in March of 1979.
With operating businesses that required a 24-7-365 commitment, and having achieved considerable success, Bob Neal sold his franchises over a two year period (1985-1986). After 24 years in the car business, it was time to move on.
History will record that Robert P. Neal was the first African-American car dealer to become a multi-franchised dealer in the post World War II era at a time when African-Americans were just beginning to make inroads into the retail car business.