When a hard-working mechanic saw a Datsun, he thought it was built like a tank. So he became the first Datsun dealer in the U.S. His instincts made him rich.
Earliest Nissan involvement: 1958
Role: First Datsun dealer in the United States
Key influence: In Datsun's early U.S. days, Lemke showed other risk-taking dealers that they could make good with the little-known Japanese brand.
He owned a mom-and-pop garage in San Diego. On the side, his Economy Car Center sold scooters and small foreign cars.
Lemke and his wife lived in a small trailer on the property and displayed cars in “an open area, unprotected from the sun, rain and dirt,” according to a history published by the Z Car Club Association.
Humble? Yes. But ideal for Nissan scouts looking for dealers. New-car dealers at the time snubbed import franchises. Nissan resorted to promoting Datsun franchises to used-car dealers.
Lemke became the first Datsun dealer in the United States. It took a hard-working mechanic to realize the value of those durable early Datsun vehicles, insight that eventually made him rich.
His dealership, San Diego Datsun, evolved into one of Nissan North America's highest volume dealerships. Lemke's success helped attract other entrepreneurs to the franchise.
Lemke told reporters that he got his start selling Datsuns when a truckload of German-made Goggomobils arrived at his Economy Car Center from Los Angeles. On the top was a Datsun.
“I noticed it was built like a tank,” Lemke told the San Diego Union-Tribune in 1988. At the time of his interview, Lemke was retired and 77 years old.
“They told me if I took the load of Goggomobils, I could have the first Datsun franchise, so I took it,” he said.
Datsun franchises were then peddled by a handful of sales representatives who worked out of their homes, according to the Z Car Club Association. Their wives worked as their secretaries because Nissan could not afford much of a sales network.
Lemke hired Fred Jordan, now 86, as his general sales manager.
“He asked me to come to work there because I could sell cars,” Jordan says. “Mr. Lemke had no interest in sales. He had a stall in the shop and he spent his time out there working on cars.”
Lemke's skill as a mechanic was critical to Nissan in the early days, Jordan says. His shop became Nissan's unofficial research department.
“Ray Lemke did research and repairs of early-day cars,” Jordan says. “He solved a lot of the vibration problems in our shop.”
San Diego Datsun was the first to sell Datsun's small pickup and the first to sell 500 new Datsuns. It sold the 1-millionth Datsun produced.
Ray Lemke retired and sold his dealership in 1984. He is now deceased. The dealership closed more than a decade ago.
“Other car dealers thought I would last six months and go out of business,” Lemke said in 1988. “But they didn't know what a good car I had, and it made me a millionaire.”