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 organization, helped launch a bank that exists to this day and was the founding chairman of the Grand Prix Association of Long Beach.

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 Corp as an aerial radio gunner, he was honorably discharged and went on to attend the University of Missouri on a football scholarship.

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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 joined on with Campbell Buick as a junior partner and general manager. From there, he 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 OK for a Jaguar franchise, which changed the company’s name to Boulevard Buick/British Cars. Over the year’s, 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 Willingham joined as a junior partner. Willingham then continued operating the dealership with his son through the early 1990s.



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