By Bill Shea, Crain News Service
DETROIT (Aug. 5, 2015) — Mel Farr, the former Detroit Lions running back who became owner of the nation's largest black-owned auto dealership group, has died at the age of 70.
Two years after retiring from the NFL, Mr. Farr acquired a Ford dealership in suburban Detroit in 1975, eventually growing his automotive empire to a chain of 11 dealerships. The group had Ford, Toyota, Mazda, Suzuki, Volkswagen and Hyundai stores.
His post-football persona was “Mel Farr, Superstar” — the pitch he used in local Detroit-area TV commercials for his dealerships.
His fortunes peaked in 1998 when Black Enterprise magazine named Mel Farr Automotive Group the nation's largest black-owned company. The group had revenue of $568.4 million, Automotive News reported in 2002.
He was forced to sell dealerships and dismantle his business after defaulting on $50 million in debts owed to Ford Credit. Mr. Farr was unable grow his consumer finance operation and open more used-car superstores.
He created the subprime Triple M Financing Co. as part of his used-car bid.
Mr. Farr came under fire in 2000 after he equipped used cars with electronic devices that would shut the vehicles down if customers missed payments. Consumer lawsuits were settled by June 2000, but Mr. Farr's auto dealership revenue was plummeting, and he began to sell them off to pay debts.
His long association with Ford Motor Co. was rooted in his playing career with the Lions — the team has been owned by the Ford family since January 1964.
Mr. Farr, a Beaumont, Texas, native, worked for Ford during his off-seasons with the Lions. He retired because of knee and shoulder injuries after the 1973 season.
In 69 career NFL games, all with the Lions, Mr. Farr rushed for 3,072 yards and scored 26 touchdowns on the ground. He caught 146 passes for 1,374 yards and 10 scores.
He missed 29 games because of injuries and opted for retirement after the Lions traded him in March 1974 to the Houston Oilers for an undisclosed draft pick.
Mr. Farr completed a bachelor's degree in political science in 1971 at the University of Detroit Mercy. A year earlier, he and teammate Lem Barney recorded background vocals on Marvin Gaye's hit “What's Going On,” released in January 1971.
In November 1975, Mr. Farr invested $40,000 with John Cook, one of his former trainers at Ford, to buy a failed Ford dealership in Oak Park, Mich., according to an online history of his company at FundingUniverse.com. That dealership became Cook-Farr Ford, and Farr bought out Cook in 1978 to create Mel Farr Ford.
During the energy crisis and auto downturn in the late 1970s that gutted the ranks of minority dealerships nationwide, Mr. Farr successfully lobbied President Jimmy Carter for low-interest federal loans to keep his dealership out of bankruptcy. He also received financial aid from Ford.
An advocate for minorities in auto sales, he co-founded the Minority Ford Lincoln Mercury Dealers Association, which today is the Southfield, Mich.-based Ford Motor Minority Dealers Association.
Mr. Farr's other business interests included co-ownership for a time of a 7-Up distributorship, BFW Bottling Co., in Flint, Mich.
This report appeared on the website of Automotive News, a Detroit-based sister publication of Tire Business.