Bob Rohrman, the lushly mustachioed car dealer whose charisma and flair for sales built one of the biggest family-owned auto groups in the nation during a 65-year career, died Tuesday night at 87 of complications of age, according to his company.
But his wacky commercials — punctuated by the deep baritone of an actor roaring, “Bob ROHR–man!” — will live on in the memory of many Midwesterners.
He spoofed one of the biggest movie franchises with his “Car Wars” commercial, telling a Princess Leia lookalike, “I’m Bob Rohrman. I’m here to rescue you from high prices!”
Some featured a cartoon lion roaring, “When it comes to automobiles, there’s only one Bob ROHR–man!”
The commercials were corny. But their production quality stood out among the other late-night TV car ads and made the Lafayette, Indiana, resident a Midwest celebrity.
When he was at his dealerships, people would ask to take photos with him. If he was at a sports event or enjoying a night out, it was rare to end an evening without someone greeting him with a shout, echoing the commercials, of “Bob ROHR-man!”
Among those sharing memories of him on social media Wednesday, one man said he struggled as a boy with pronouncing his “Rs” but learned to say them from Mr. Rohrman’s commercials.
In 2016, Mr. Rohrman described the key to his success in an interview with the Indiana Business Journal: “If you’re going to sell anything, especially cars, because they’re not cheap, you have to fall in love with the customer. Because if you fall in love with the customer, they’ll love you, and they’ll never go anywhere else.”
In his autobiography “A Fantastic Ride,” which is available at his dealerships, Mr. Rohrman described a rags-to-riches success story that started with his birth in a log cabin in Lafayette, according to a history posted by Bob Rohrman Subaru of Lafayette. He said his father brought his pregnant wife and eight children to work some land for a farmer, but, when their home wasn’t ready, the farmer had the family stay in the log cabin, where baby Bob was born.
After serving with an Army tank division at Fort Lewis outside Tacoma, Washington, Mr. Rohrman started selling cars in 1955 at a Ford dealership in Lafayette.
In 1963, he opened his first business, a used-car lot, on Sagamore Parkway in Lafayette.
In the late 1960s, he decided to sell Japanese cars before they became mainstream in the United States. Mr. Rohrman “spotted an ad in the back of an auto magazine for new Toyota cars,” according to Rohrman Subaru’s history. “Japanese models were still thought to be a risk in the U.S. markets, but Mr. Rohrman saw the opportunity, called and negotiated a dealership. It was a risk that took off, and so did the start of the Bob Rohrman Auto Group.”
His company now includes 27 new-car dealerships in Arlington Height, Gurnee, Oakbrook, Palatine, Schaumburg, Kenosha, Wisconsin, and, in Indiana, Fort Wayne and Indianapolis in addition to Lafayette, with Acura, Ford, Genesis, Honda, Hyundai, Infiniti, Kia, Lexus, Lincoln, Nissan, Subaru, Toyota and Volkswagen dealers and more than 1,000 employees.
In 2019, he was recognized as a “Sagamore of the Wabash.” It’s one of the highest Hoosier awards from the state of Indiana, akin to being named a Kentucky Colonel. Sagamore recipients have included David Letterman, Willie Nelson and WWI flying ace Eddie Rickenbacker.
At the time, his company noted he’d donated tens of millions of dollars for projects including a tennis complex at Lafayette Central Catholic High School and a performing arts center at his alma mater, Lafayette Jefferson Public High School. A big fan of the Purdue Boilermakers, he also donated $15 million for improvements at Ross-Ade field that resulted in renaming it Rohrman Field.
He once told the Indiana Business Journal he tried every model he sold, changing demos every 5,000 miles.
“The Lexus is probably my favorite,” he said. “I love the way it looks, rides and drives.”
Mr. Rohrman, who was married three times and was divorced, is survived by daughters Rhonda Isbell and Shelly Rohrman Posch, sons Randy, Rick and Robert “J.R.” Rohrman, 16 grandchildren and 18 great-grandchildren.
Visitation for Mr. Rohrman will be be from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Chicago time Wednesday at St. Ann’s Catholic Church, 612 Wabash Ave., Lafayette, followed by a funeral service, with burial at Tippecanoe Memory Gardens in West Lafayette.
To view the service remotely, his family says people should go online to zoom.us about 10 minutes before the service, then click on “join meeting,” enter meeting number 765-490-4234, and enter password tmg2020.