The Wentworth family business began 100 years ago in Portland, Ore., passing down through the generations as expected over the years. Then suddenly, in 1992, the family had to change directions.
Dealer Charles Wentworth Jr. died without a succession plan, leaving his three sons to grapple with power sharing in a business that for decades had been run by the family patriarch.
Greg, Scott and Bob Wentworth sought help from a family business program at Oregon State University to sort through their options.
Eventually, a third dealership was acquired, franchises were added, and each brother now is the head of his own store, although they all remain under one corporation.
The trio has begun contemplating a future with an increasingly complex family tree. But if their children decide on a career path that doesn't involve automobiles, it will be OK.
"If they find something they like better - God bless them, that is what they should do," Greg Wentworth says.
The Sames family also is in its fourth generation of selling cars. But there were times along the way when the Laredo, Texas, business, which started with Ford in 1910, could have dissolved instead of being passed on, says owner Harry Sames III.
"Unfortunately, you don't see many fourth or fifth generation businesses," he says. "Many times this could have slipped out of our hands because of the economy, family fights or incompetence."
Some people think the children of dealers who follow in their families' footsteps have it easy. The Peterson family from Bryner Chevrolet in Jenkintown, Pa., could prove them wrong.
Chuck Peterson, the dealership's general manager, started out by detailing cars.
"I got all the black cars with chrome, and I had to polish them by hand, instead of with an electrical polishing wheel," he recalls.
His brother, David Peterson, started as a line mechanic, and David's son, Michael, spent a summer painting walls.
"We grew up as SOBs (Sons of Boss)," Chuck Peterson says. "Dad ingrained in us that we had to set the pace. He didn't want us to feel that things were owed to us because we were the boss' sons."
Like many of his peers, Dallas-area dealer J.L. Huffines Jr. got his start as a teenager working at his father's dealership. Unlike most dealers, one of Huffines' first jobs was delivering to the family farm the pigs, horses or other livestock accepted as down payments on new automobiles.
Today, Huffines Jr. and his son, Ray, are partners in a six-dealership business, with the father as the majority owner and no animals in sight.
Ray Huffines has this advice to others in a family dealership: "To the older generation, I would say give your son(s) responsible positions, not necessarily running the whole company, but where they have definite duties and let them learn the business that way. Learn the business by doing the job. To the younger person, I say, be patient."