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1914 was an interesting year. A 19-year-old named Babe Ruth pitched his first game in the majors as a Baltimore Oriole. And Les Kelley, the son of a preacher from Arkansas, made his way to California at the age of 17.
Les had no money and no job, but he owned an old car. It was in fine shape because he had a knack for mechanics and had overhauled it himself. All of his friends admired his car and frequently tried to buy it. After much persuasion he finally did sell it to one of them. With the money he received from this deal Les bought another old Ford. After giving this car a thorough overhauling, he traded it off, taking in two used cars and a little money on the deal. He reconditioned these cars and sold them. With the money he bought other used automobiles and found himself making enough money to pay his way through college.
1918 was an interesting year. Babe Ruth was now a pitcher for the Boston Red Sox, as they defeated the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. World War I ended on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. And like many young men at the end of the war, Les Kelley sought to establish himself in the business world. He leased part of a lot from another car dealer in Los Angeles and started the Kelley Kar Company with three cars for sale. His brother, Buster, at age 13, joined Les as a lot boy, changing tires and washing cars. By the age of 18 Buster ran the repair shop with a dozen mechanics, and Les managed sales. Les and Buster did so well that they had to move to progressively larger sites.
In the early 1920s, to help acquire new inventory, Les Kelley distributed to other dealers and to banks a list of automobiles he wished to buy and the prices he was willing to pay for them. The automotive community began to trust his judgment so much as an accurate reflection of current values, they started to request the list for their own use. When someone asked a dealer what his used car might be worth, the dealer usually took a look at Mr. Kelleys list, conveniently tucked under his desk blotter. It didnt take long for Les Kelley to realize that he could provide an ongoing service to dealers and bankers alike.
1926 was an interesting year for individual achievement. A 19-year-old American named Gertrude Ederle swam the English Channel. "Our Trudy" was the first woman to conquer the Channel, and her time was almost two hours faster than the mens record. Babe Ruth led the Yankees into the World Series (although he made the final out in game seven, when he was caught stealing). Edsel Ford had risen to President of Ford Motor Company, soon to announce the Model A.
And in Los Angeles, Les Kelley decided to expand the list of automobile values he had been producing since 1918 and published the first Blue Book of Motor Car Values . He showed factory list price and cash value on thousands of vehicles, from Cadillacs to Duesenbergs, from Pierce-Arrows to Hupmobiles. A 1926 Packard sedan limousine with balloon tires might fetch as much as $3,825. But a 1921 Nash touring car, even with a clock, was only worth $50. Les named the publication Blue Book after the Social Register, because it meant that you would find valuable information inside. (Emily Post had also just published her first book of etiquette, which was to later be named Etiquette: The Blue Book of Social Usage ). And Les Kelley was to make Kelley Blue Book synonymous with the authoritative source for car values. To this day, across the country, people ask the question, "Whats the Blue Book value of my car?" At the dealership Les was selling "Selected Blue Seal Automobiles," so he carried the blue and gold ribbon medallion onto the cover of the Blue Book, where it remains today.
Kelley Kar Company was always known for innovative approaches to selling cars. In the early 1920s all automobiles were painted black (the joke went that Henry Ford would say you could buy any color Model T you wanted, as long as it was black). The truth is the only reason that all cars were black was because black paint dried faster. Back then it took about a month to paint a car, because every coat on every part had to be air dried. Due to its unique chemical make-up, black paint dried faster than other colors. As it was, Ford had to devote about 20 acres of covered storage just for cars waiting to dry. One day, when Buster Kelley (shown here) was managing the body shop, an employee was about to repaint a car. He suggested they repaint it pink! Buster questioned the logic of this at first, but the painter agreed to repaint it black again for free if it didnt sell. So they painted it pink, put it in the showroom, and it sold immediately. So they painted another one pink, and it sold. Finally they painted every car in the body shop pink! Sales soared.
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