Lee Johnson Chevrolet in Kirkland celebrates its 80th anniversary this year. Although the Johnson ownership started in 1933, Chevrolet was already a fixture on the Eastside for approximately fifteen years prior to then.
E.A (Eddie) Blau was actually responsible for bringing Chevrolet to Kirkland. An established Kirkland garage man, Blau purchased an interest in an auto repair facility in 1918. Six months later he and his brother Oscar, purchased new land, and constructed a concrete garage on the property. The garage was reportedly so thoroughly equipped that there was no demand it could not meet. In 1920, Oscar Blau sold his interest in the business to Ralph Sample of Kirkland.
In 1923, Blau became a direct agent for Chevrolet and began receiving cars directly from the Oakland distributing plant. Prior to then, all Chevrolets came through Seattle distributors. In 1924, Blau Chevrolet was made an Eastside Dealer and Parts Depot, with sub-dealers in five other Eastside cities.
In 1929, Ralph Sample took over the dealership and continued operating under the name Blau Chevrolet for two more years. He then sold to Frank Hart, who was awarded the Chevrolet franchise for the entire Eastside. Renaming the company Hart Chevrolet, he moved to the corner of Lake Washington Boulevard and Kirkland Avenue downtown Kirkland, only to move back to the original location just nine months later.
In 1933, LeRoy E. Johnson partnered with Renton auto dealers Hayden Williams and John Swanson to purchase Hart Chevrolet. On May 23 of that year, the deal was completed, and Eastside Motors came into being. "Mr. Swanson and Mr. Williams respected grandpa," remembers Tod Johnson. "They wanted to help give him a foothold in the industry and knew it would be a good investment." Williams and Swanson maintained financial involvement, while Johnson oversaw the day-to-day aspects of the dealership.
"Production was quite different at that time as it was the height of the depression," recalls Brett Johnson. "I think the first month in business they sold one car, with a total of six for the year.
The later half of the 1930s, LeRoy brought two key employees on board. Brother-in-law Edward Murray joined in 1935 to handle bookkeeping and oversee the parts and service departments. Al (Shorty) Locati was hired as service manager in 1936.
The first half of the 1940s brought conservation due to World War II. Automotive production came to a halt while efforts countrywide went into winning the war. In 1941, LeRoy joined the Air Force and headed overseas, with Murray managing the dealership in his absence.
In 1953, Chevrolet manufactured the first sports car in America, the Corvette, and three years later Eastside Chevrolet celebrated its 23rd anniversary. By this time the store had grown from four original employees to a staff of twenty-six. Production averaged 50 cars per month, with the average sticker price being $2,500 for a new car.
In 1963, LeRoy M. Johnson joined his father in the business. This same year the family decided to move the store from its original site on Kirkland Avenue to a location very near where it sits today. Completion of the facility took just 92 days and the dealership moved in 1964. The dealership incorporated in 1967, and the name changed to Lee Johnson Chevrolet. "Chevrolet wanted the dealer’s name associated with the dealership," explains Tod. "That was the main motivation for the change."
In 1968, when planners determined the path of the future I-405, the dealership was directly in the construction zone. "We were forced to move and the facility was condemned," explains Tod. "The government’s settlement allowed us to buy the property where we sit today." In early 1972, Lee Jr. became dealer and Dick Meyer joined the management team as used car manager. Dick later worked his way up to general manager and partner. Lee Sr. passed away in mid - 1972. Ken Wheadon joined the sales force in early ‘73 and later became general sales manager.
The 1980s were a time of growth for the dealership. 1983 brought the 50th anniversary celebration, and in 1987 Mazda was added to the lineup. A year later, Lee and Dick purchased Dewey Griffin Cadillac, Oldsmobile, GMC, and Subaru in Bellingham. This purchase marked the beginning of the Lee Johnson Auto Group.
The dealership celebrated its 60th anniversary in 1993, and three years later, on January 2, 1996, Brett Johnson joined the management team. Tod Johnson joined the company a few months later. In 1998, Lee Johnson Auto Group began planning expansion of a new dealership in Monroe. Upon completion of Speedway Chevrolet in Monroe in 2000, longtime employee and general sales manager, Ken Wheadon took over as dealer principle for that location.
Brett Johnson took over as Kirkland’s dealer in 2002, and works closely with his brother Tod in the daily management of the business. Today the dealership has 110 employees and sells over 150 vehicles per month. "We built this business on good service, great values and a friendly atmosphere," Brett smiles. "Those qualities will always be our number one priority."