Wally McCarthy's death and the changing era of auto dealers

One of the titans of the Twin Cities auto dealer scene died this week. Wally McCarthy passed away Wednesday at the age of 94. Those who worked with him say he was warm and affectionate and larger-than-life.

His name certainly was.

It's been heard in radio jingles and TV commercials for decades. And the name Wally McCarthy could once be seen prominently perched atop his flagship Oldsmobile dealership in Richfield. The dealership was the stand-in for "Gustafson Motors" in the 1996 movie "Fargo" and stood on the site of what is now Best Buy's headquarters.

McCarthy began his career in 1949 as an account-manager at a South St. Paul Oldsmobile dealer. He opened his first dealership in 1953 and, then in 1962, took over an Oldsmobile dealership in Richfield.

His approach to selling cars was during a time when consumers relied on big names, said Steve Wallace of the Advertising Federation of Minnesota.

"And that's how people at that particular time got their information. They needed a dealer who understood automobiles and cars and could help them through that purchase process. It was pretty competitive at that time," said Wallace.

Fast forward to today and it's a different experience. Wallace says car dealerships are shifting their marketing to a more informed consumer.

"They're looking online, they're finding out Carfax histories and how much vehicles cost," said Wallace. "They're much more sophisticated in the buying process."

Wallace says car dealers still advertise, but they're spending more money on generating online leads and email campaigns.

And while McCarthy and some of his big name competitors might represent an era of car selling that has passed us by, drive around the metro and you're still likely to see his name in lights, with rows and rows of shiny cars underneath. The McCarthy name is still associated with dealerships, including in Coon Rapids and Roseville.

A celebration of Wally McCarthy's life is scheduled for Sunday in Edina.

Editor's note (June 4, 2017): This story has been edited to clarify that Wally McCarthy took over an existing Oldsmobile dealership in Richfield in 1962.

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