By Shane Nicholson
RURAL OAKS — After more than 50 years of pounding the pavement, Gary Carlson is stepping away from the day-to-day duties of his car dealership.
Gary Carlson Motors, a longtime fixture of the Rural Oaks neighborhood, will close on Dec. 31. Carlson, reached by phone Tuesday, says he owes so much to the city he’s called home his entire life.
“I was born and raised just two blocks from here. My house now is just seven or so blocks from here, down by the YMCA. And I’m still here at the same lot, walking the same pavement I have all these years.”
Carlson was just 11-years-old when he made his first sale. Working as a lot boy for the then-Alan Campbell Cars at Rural Oaks, he was left in charge of the office when a buyer walked onto the lot and asked to test drive a Rambler convertible.
“I let him drive it around the lot, and I kept him here until Al came back,” Carlson said. When Campbell finally wrote up the paperwork, he gave the sixth-grader the credit for the deal.
Carlson praises Campbell, who he worked for over 27 years in the used car business. He says his former boss instilled upon him the need for integrity in a business sustained by repeat customers.
“(Al) was always concerned about his reputation,” Carlson said. “He would say, ‘There are lots of people in this town to buy cars from. Only you have your reputation.’”
Carlson says those lessons drove him to build trust with his own neighbors and clients over the decades.
“I don’t there there’s anybody that has a better customer base than I have,” he says. “The people in Rockford have been very good to me and I’ve tried to be good to them.”
His years of work led to him being honored as the State of Illinois Quality Dealer of the Year in 1999, the same year the Illinois Independent Dealer Association nominated Carlson as the National Quality Dealer of the Year. He credits his longtime office assistant Sandi Hendricks with much of his success.
“Gary Carlson Motors has been such a stable anchor in that area, it’ll be tough to see him go,” said 2nd Ward Alderman Jonathan Logemann. “He’s been a great neighbor and a great advocate for the Rural Oaks area, and downtown, too. Losing that business, it’s a hole in the soul of the 2nd Ward.”
Beyond the more than 7,000 cars he’s sold during his career, Carlson’s knack for historic preservation led him to remodel the century-old home that houses the offices of his dealership, a former housing quarters for Swedish immigrants who worked in the city’s furniture factories in the early 1900s.
Carlson has also worked on other historic preservation projects in town, including his prairie-style home on North 2nd Street. The home, built in 1908, was updated throughout the 20th century before falling into disrepair. Carlson purchased it in 2002 from the Community Foundation of Northern Illinois with the agreement he maintain the structure’s historic status.
“(Gary’s) participation has been awesome in the preservation arena,” says local architect Gary Anderson. “Leading by example with his work in Indian Terrace and his own home on North 2nd—it’s just all been done in a first-class manner. We’re so glad he’s been an advocate for preservation and has done so with the highest standards.”
An initial 30-month undertaking led to a home recognized by Professor Michael Jackson, chief architect at the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, and Landmarks Illinois.
Now, Gary says he plans on spending time in the home he and his family meticulously restored along the Rock River.
“I think I’ll do some traveling, but the house I’m in now, I worked on over the past years. I just want to be there. I want to enjoy that. It’s going to be nice not having to wake up, go into work Monday through Saturday, 9-5, every week.”
Carlson isn’t stepping away from the hustle entirely, though. He plans on going to work part-time with Genrich Auto Sales, 310 Kishwaukee St., servicing his longtime customers and handling special requests.
“I’ll continue taking orders from the people I’ve worked with over the years. I’m just not going to be doing it on my own lot anymore,” he said.
And he adds that he’s got no intention of leaving the city he’s always called home.
“It’d be different if I was moving off to Florida or something like that, but I’m staying right here. I’m going to enjoy my life in this city that I love so much.”
The dealership at 1621 Rural St. is for sale. R.