Jim Willingham, former head of the National Automobile Dealership Association and once honored as America’s most reliable auto dealer by Time magazine, has died. He was 92.
In the automobile business, Willingham was a legend. He began selling cars on Long Beach Boulevard — American Avenue at the time — in 1950, eventually growing his business into one of the biggest dealers in the city. He also served as the head of the Chamber of Commerce in the mid-1970s, was involved in multiple other local organizations, helped launch a bank that exists to this day and was the founding chairman of the Long Beach’s Grand Prix’s Committee of 300.
Willingham, who died from pneumonia last week at Eisenhower Health in the Coachella Valley, was a hard worker who seemingly succeeded at whatever he did, said Jim Gray, his business partner and friend of more than 50 years — traits that led him to become a prominent member of the Long Beach community.
“He was always rising up the ranks wherever he went,” Gray said. “We were always in competition to see who was rising the fastest.”
Gray also described Willingham as the consummate family man and a dear friend.
“As we grow older, time is the most precious commodity you have,” Gray said. “Jim was always that way with his family.
“Truly the closest kind of friends,” he added. “More like being a brother.”
Jim Willingham was born on Sept. 6, 1928, in Risco, Missouri, not far from the Tennessee border. He was one of nine children born to Norma and Rev. Wesley Willingham, a Baptist minister. After serving nearly two years in the Marine Air Corps as an aerial radio gunner, he was honorably discharged and went on to attend the University of Missouri on a football scholarship.
Severe knee and ankle injuries ultimately ended his college athletic career.
In 1950, Willingham, still in his early 20s, headed west, moving to Long Beach and becoming a car salesman for Ed James Studebaker, on American Avenue — the start of a long and successful career in the auto industry.
Two years later, he moved to Master’s Pontiac in 1952 and, in 1956, became the general sales manager for C. Standlee Martin Oldsmobile. Then, at the turn of the decade, he joined Campbell Buick as a junior partner and general manager. From there, his career would skyrocket.
On Feb. 1, 1961, Boulevard Buick formed and Willingham became its president. He was 32 years old. The name, his son Brad Willingham said, came after American Avenue had been changed to Long Beach Boulevard.
In May of that year, Willingham’s dealership got the okay for a Jaguar franchise, which changed the company’s name to Boulevard Buick/British Cars. Over the years, the dealership, under Willingham’s leadership, would receive many honors from Buick and Jaguar, including the Buick Select Sixty Award and World Class Customer Satisfaction.
He eventually bought out Charlie Campbell, the dealership’s owner when it still bore his name and Brad Willingham joined as a junior partner. Willingham then continued operating the dealership with his son through the early 1990s.
But as Long Beach developed, the dealership’s visibility and parking diminished — particularly when Metro’s Blue Line (now called the A Line) light rail train system opened. So Boulevard moved from Long Beach to the Signal Hill Auto Center in 1993, naming it Boulevard Buick Pontiac GMC.
The company bought Coast Cadillac, also in the Signal Hill Auto Center, in 2010, where Brad Willingham, Ron Charron and his son still oversee the dealerships.
Willingham, while he was building his career, also joined Gray and seven other local business people in founding the Harbor Bank in 1974, which would thrive as an independent bank, growing to boast seven branches and $200 million in assets.
He also dedicated much of his time to community work, including serving as vice president of the Long Beach State Athletic Foundation in 1960, president of the Long Beach Rotary Club in 1974 and head of the Long Beach Area Chamber of Commerce in 1979. In 2008, Brad Willingham also led the Rotary Club, making the pair the first father-son leaders of the organization, which was founded in 1917.
“He was a true entrepreneur,” Gray said. “Generous to charities, to his kids, grandkids. I admired him for doing what he did for his whole family.”
He also played a key role in organizing the city’s first Grand Prix, serving as a founding chairman of the Committee of 300, a group of volunteers who serve as Grand Prix ambassadors.
“Jim was last into the meeting, where we had already decided to make him chairman,” Gray said. “The last time he was ever late to a meeting. But he was instrumental in getting the Grand Prix off the ground.”
Willingham, an Indian Wells resident when he died, is survived by his wife, Betty Jean; eight children, including Brad Willingham; and 16 grandchildren.
The family plans to host a celebration of life for Willingham sometime in the summer, or whenever the coronavirus pandemic subsides.