Billed as the “World’s First Auto Center,” the 1965 opening of the Riverside Auto Center transformed the car-buying landscape in America, if not the world.
What began in the late 1950s as a bold vision among three local car dealers – George Reade Sr. (Chevrolet), Charles W. “Bud” Dutton Sr. (Cadillac/Oldsmobile), and Julian Adrian “Red” Moss Sr. (Dodge) – to sell cars together as competitors within a dedicated “auto center,” would soon encompass four more dealers (Ford, Buick, Pontiac, Lincoln-Mercury), and later, spawn hundreds of copy-cat auto malls.
Needing to build larger facilities, the seven dealers realized they would have to move outside of their cramped downtown locations, which were mostly located along Market Street north of Seventh Street (Mission Inn Avenue).
The group initially purchased 35 acres on Arlington Avenue, across from California School for the Deaf (where Target – formerly Gemco – stands today). Although zoning was approved by the Riverside Planning Commission and Riverside City Council, nearby residents strongly objected, leading to a 1962 ballot measure that overturned the Council’s decision.
According to late local historian Tom Patterson, Charles W. Dutton Jr. – son of center founder Dutton Sr. – said the defeat of the Arlington Avenue site was “a blessing in disguise” on account it would have proved too small compared to the current site.
Thus, the dealers turned their eyes a few miles to the southwest, settling on 55 acres of citrus groves located east of Highway 91 near Adams Street and Indiana Avenue.
From there, the seven original dealers received somewhat tacit approval (and semi-skeptical looks) from their respective brands for the new concept, and “drew from a hat” for lots within the center. According to a 1996 article in the Riverside Press-Enterprise, the new auto center received mention in Business Week, wherein an unnamed General Motors executive was quoted as saying, “we don’t approve of this kind of selling,” likely referring to the cooperative assembling of competing dealers. (It appears the Big Three automakers in Detroit initially seemed indifferent, failing to fully grasp the bold concept, let alone comprehend how transforming it would become.)
The original assemblage consisted only of domestic car dealers lining both sides of Auto Drive, bisected by Motor Circle and Detroit Drive. On the west side of Auto Drive near Adams Street was Rubidoux Motor Company (Cadillac/Olds), with Moss Motors (Dodge), Kennedy Pontiac, Boyer Motors (Lincoln-Mercury), and Helegeson Buick lining the street northward toward Jefferson Street. On the east side of Auto Drive were just two dealers – DeAnza Chevrolet (near Adams) and Warren-Anderson Ford closer to Jefferson.
In the center parcel between the Chevy and Ford dealers was to be the site of a planned commercial mall of sorts, some of which was built (Security Pacific Bank, Auto Lab diagnostics & car wash, car parts store, restaurant, dry cleaners, and liquor store). However, this particular concept was the only portion of the auto center to not fully materialize and today has been mostly consumed by dealer expansions and additions. The only part of the failed commercial mall concept that remains in this section today is J&M Speed Center.
And although no foreign dealers were part of the original center, a few – namely Volkswagen (the once famous Economotors* of EMPI** fame) and Toyota – would appear by 1970 on the center’s perimeter (mostly along Indiana). These would soon be followed by others, foreign and domestic, eventually resulting in nearly every major brand being present. The first brand addition within the original auto center itself was a Chrysler-Plymouth dealership that relocated from downtown around 1976.
A 1980 profile in the Riverside Press-Enterprise marking the Center’s 15th year indicates the “auto mall” concept was indeed working and was considered beneficial by the majority of the competing dealers.
“When we came here from downtown we had a tremendous increase in business,” said Dodge dealer Adrian Moss. “Everybody knows where we are. We draw from a big circumference.”
The Press-Enterprise, Dec. 15, 1980
The article also touted that the Riverside Auto Center had become a model for similar centers across the nation, a proliferation that would soon challenge Riverside’s dominance.
In 1987, to help spur awareness from passing motorists on nearby Highway 91, a portion of Adams Street near the Auto Center was renamed Adams Street/Auto Center Drive. The original plan was to completely rename a portion of Adams Street with Auto Center Drive. However, a denial from the City’s Planning Commission and objections from residents resulted in the Adams/Auto Center compromise. The approval also required the auto dealers to pay the costs for updated freeway/city signage.
In 1991, in the face of growing competition from multiplying auto malls, which were siphoning some sales away from Riverside (and from the City’s sales tax coffers – $3.5 million or 15% of overall sales taxes at the time), the Riverside City Council approved a digital signboard. Although still somewhat restrictive, the approval required a change in policy against allowing electronic/flashing/rotating message boards, which had been banned in the city since the 1970s. The new $250,000 sign was placed on Susan Street just off Indiana Avenue. It replaced the original, free-standing “Auto Center” neon sign that once stood near the eastbound Adams Street off-ramp.
Also during the 1990s, a plan approved by the City to spruce up the center using tax dollars was met with criticism by some residents and a few of the smaller dealers. However, increasing sales tax competition spurred the City Council to approve the plan, which included uniform lighting, dealer signage, parking and landscaping. It also contained entry monument signage (using the City’s raincross symbol) and dealer “vehicle display pads” for showcasing cars, including a few located within new rotary intersections.
In 2013, the Auto Center’s freeway sign was again updated, this time with a much larger, high-definition color display.
Over the years, the Riverside Auto Center would eventually grow to encompass over 100 acres, remaining one of the nation’s largest auto centers with nearly every major car manufacturer present, including later additions Acura, Audi, BMW, Datsun/Nissan, Fiat, GMC, Honda, Hyundai, Infiniti, Jaguar, Jeep, Kia, Lexus, Mazda, Mercedes-Benz, Mitsubishi, Porsche, Range Rover, Saturn, Scion, Smart Car, Sprinter, Subaru, Suzuki, Volvo, and Yugo (some makes of which no longer exist).
Today, the Riverside Auto Center offers 32 dealers/makes — including all major brands — and over 7,000 cars in one location. Also nearby is a large Harley-Davidson dealership (formerly Skip-Fordyce) as well as Riverside’s own Malcolm Smith Motorsports (of “On Any Sunday” fame) and a number of related dealers and automotive services.
As the 50th anniversary of the Riverside Auto Center nears, with hundreds of imitators scattered about the nation, it’s likely that even the seven original dealers could not have foreseen how transformative their idea would become.
Check out the slideshow below for “Then & Now” views (1965, 2009, 2014) for the seven original Riverside Auto Center dealers.
Sources: Riverside Public Library, Press-Enterprise archives (PE-19801215, PE-19870204, PE-19910821, PE-19960728, PE-19961027, PE-20130723), 1960 UCR yearbook advertisement, 1965 Riverside Auto Center booklet, 1990/2007 Riverside Auto Center Specific Plan