"Three members of Volkswagen's board came to Washington, and I set up meetings with them with people in government who would be of interest to them," McElwaine, 81, recalls. "They came back to my office and said, 'We don't seem to have much influence in this country.'
"I said, 'If I go in and say, I'm Bob McElwaine and I represent Volkswagenwerk Wolfsburg Aktiengesellschaft, they aren't going to listen to me. But you've got at least one dealer in every congressional district in the country. If you could put those guys to work for you, then you'd have some real clout.' "
As a result, the automaker tapped Peter Cook, the VW distributor for Michigan and Indiana, to recruit dealers for a national VW dealers organization. Cook enlisted David Gezon, a Grand Rapids, Mich., dealer, to work with him. Gezon turned to his own attorney, Conrad Bradshaw, for legal assistance.
"Here was an opportunity to help with the formation of a national association," Bradshaw says. "They (German VW executives) knew McElwaine's suggestion was a good one. They knew they could not effectively lobby Congress as a German organization. But they had people out there with a valid interest that their senators and congressmen would listen to."
The first meeting of the board of directors of the Volkswagen American Dealers Association was Sept. 10, 1970. One of the first orders of business was hiring McElwaine as executive vice president.
Sixteen months later, in part to gain tax-exempt status, the group opened its membership to all import car dealers and changed its name to the American Imported Automobile Dealers Association. That group in 1980 became the American International Automobile Dealers Association. Eventually McElwaine became president.
McElwaine credits much of AIADA's success to a Washington lawyer, Thomas Hale Boggs Jr.
Boggs is "probably the most effective lobbyist who ever cooled his Gucci loafers outside a Senate hearing room," says McElwaine.
He describes retaining Boggs' services as "the most significant single action I took to help bring about the successful conclusion of our struggle to keep from being legislated out of business."
For a fledgling trade association, Boggs was a good colt on which to bet. Politics was in his genes the way the movies were in McElwaine's. Boggs' father, House Majority Leader Hale Boggs, had long been a power in Congress, and the apple had not fallen far from the tree.
"McElwaine didn't have the guns, the voters, but he had Tom Boggs," says Tom Nemet. Nemet, a third-generation dealer in New York, became chairman of AIADA in 1983. More importantly, for many years he ran the Auto Dealers and Drivers for Free Trade PAC, which routinely raised more money than any of its corporate peers. Although independent of AIADA, the groups' goals were congruent.