Mid­west car ti­tan known for wacky TV com­mer­cials

BOB ROHRMAN | 1933-2020

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - BY MAU­REEN O’DON­NELL, STAFF RE­PORTER mod­on­nell@sun­times.com @sun­time­so­bits

Bob Rohrman, the lushly mus­ta­chioed car dealer whose charisma and flair for sales built one of the big­gest fam­ily-owned auto groups in the na­tion dur­ing a 65-year ca­reer, died Tues­day night at 87 of com­pli­ca­tions of age, ac­cord­ing to his com­pany.

But his wacky com­mer­cials — punc­tu­ated by the deep bari­tone of an ac­tor roar­ing, “Bob ROHR-man!” — will live on in the mem­ory of many Mid­west­ern­ers.

For Hal­loween, he’d dress up as a caped vam­pire to pitch a “sav­ings spook­tac­u­lar.” For a Christ­mas-in-July sale, he dressed as Santa and Ho-ho-hoed about “low-low-low” prices.

He spoofed one of the big­gest movie fran­chises with his “Car Wars” com­mer­cial, telling a Princess Leia looka­like, “I’m Bob Rohrman. I’m here to res­cue you from high prices!”

Some fea­tured a car­toon lion roar­ing, “When it comes to au­to­mo­biles, there’s only one Bob ROHR-man!”

The com­mer­cials were corny. But their pro­duc­tion qual­ity stood out among the other late-night TV car ads and made the Lafayette, In­di­ana, res­i­dent a Mid­west celebrity. When he was at his deal­er­ships, peo­ple would ask to take pho­tos with him. If he was at a sports event or en­joy­ing a night out, it was rare to end an evening with­out some­one greet­ing him with a shout, echo­ing the com­mer­cials, of “Bob ROHR-man!”

Among those shar­ing mem­o­ries of him on so­cial me­dia Wed­nes­day, one man said he strug­gled as a boy with pro­nounc­ing his “R’s” but learned to say them from Mr. Rohrman’s com­mer­cials.

In 2016, Mr. Rohrman de­scribed the key to his suc­cess in an in­ter­view with the In­di­ana Busi­ness Jour­nal: “If you’re go­ing to sell any­thing, es­pe­cially cars, be­cause they’re not cheap, you have to fall in love with the cus­tomer. Be­cause if you fall in love with the cus­tomer, they’ll love you, and they’ll never go any­where else.”

In his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy “A Fan­tas­tic Ride,” which is avail­able at his deal­er­ships, Mr. Rohrman de­scribed a rags-to-riches suc­cess story that started with his birth in a log cabin in Lafayette, ac­cord­ing to a his­tory posted by Bob Rohrman Subaru of Lafayette. He said his fa­ther brought his preg­nant wife and eight chil­dren to work some land for a farmer, but, when their home wasn’t ready, the farmer had the fam­ily stay in the log cabin, where baby Bob was born.

Af­ter serv­ing with an Army tank divi­sion at Fort Lewis out­side Ta­coma, Washington, Mr. Rohrman started sell­ing cars in 1955 at a Ford deal­er­ship in Lafayette.

In 1963, he opened his first busi­ness, a used-car lot, on Sag­amore Park­way in Lafayette.

In the late 1960s, he de­cided to sell Ja­panese cars be­fore they be­came main­stream in the United States. Mr. Rohrman “spot­ted an ad in the back of an auto mag­a­zine for new Toy­ota cars,” ac­cord­ing to Rohrman Subaru’s his­tory. “Ja­panese models were still thought to be a risk in the U.S. mar­kets, but Mr. Rohrman saw the op­por­tu­nity, called and ne­go­ti­ated a deal­er­ship. It was a risk that took off, and so did the start of the Bob Rohrman Auto Group.”

His com­pany now in­cludes 27 new-car deal­er­ships in Ar­ling­ton Heights, Gurnee, Oak Brook, Pala­tine, Schaum­burg, Kenosha, Wis­con­sin, and, in In­di­ana, Fort Wayne and In­di­anapo­lis in ad­di­tion to Lafayette, with Acura, Ford, Ge­n­e­sis, Honda, Hyundai, In­finiti, Kia, Lexus, Lin­coln, Nis­san, Subaru, Toy­ota and Volk­swa­gen deal­ers and more than 1,000 em­ploy­ees.

In 2019, he was rec­og­nized as a “Sag­amore of the Wabash.” It’s one of the high­est Hoosier awards from the state of In­di­ana, akin to be­ing named a Ken­tucky Colonel. Sag­amore re­cip­i­ents have in­cluded David Let­ter­man, Wil­lie Nel­son and WWI fly­ing ace Ed­die Rick­en­backer.

At the time, his com­pany noted he’d do­nated tens of mil­lions of dol­lars for projects in­clud­ing a ten­nis com­plex at Lafayette Cen­tral Catholic High School and a per­form­ing arts cen­ter at his alma mater, Lafayette Jef­fer­son Pub­lic High School. A big fan of the Pur­due Boil­er­mak­ers, he also do­nated $15 mil­lion for im­prove­ments at RossAde field that re­sulted in re­nam­ing it Rohrman Field.

He once told the In­di­ana Busi­ness Jour­nal he tried ev­ery model he sold, chang­ing demos ev­ery 5,000 miles.

“The Lexus is prob­a­bly my fa­vorite,” he said. “I love the way it looks, rides and drives.”

Mr. Rohrman, who was mar­ried three times and was di­vorced, is sur­vived by daugh­ters Rhonda Is­bell and Shelly Rohrman Posch, sons Randy, Rick and Robert “J.R.” Rohrman, 16 grand­chil­dren and 18 great-grand­chil­dren. Funeral ar­range­ments are pend­ing.

PRO­VIDED PHOTO

Bob Rohrman’s TV com­mer­cials made him one of the Mid­west’s best-known car deal­ers.

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