Dominic Longo, the nation's most successful Toyota dealer and the man whose name, as much as the cars he sold, became part of Los Angeles' morning rush hour, died Thursday in a Pasadena hospital at 65.
The Canadian-born Longo, who started the vast El Monte dealership in 1967 and sold more cars than any Toyota dealer in the nation for 18 years, was a fixture for Los Angeles commuters, via the whimsical radio commercials of KFI comedians Al Lohman and Roger Barkley.
For 15 years the two turned the daily one-minute radio spot for "giant Longo Toyota" into an amusing, imaginary dialogue with Lohman's growly, Godfather-voiced character purporting to be Longo.
"I'm stunned by the thought of not having Dominic Longo around any more," Barkley said late Thursday.
Longo came to the United States in 1957 and soon learned the art of salesmanship from actor Ben Alexander, who played the radio and TV partner of Jack Webb on "Dragnet." Longo was a salesman at Alexander's Ford dealership in Hollywood.
On St. Patrick's Day, 1967, he started his Toyota dealership in El Monte. He broke sales records in the first month, said his son, Frank. By 1982, Longo was selling more than 10,000 new cars a year, and for 18 years he was the top-selling Toyota dealer in the United States. Last year, sales figures made him No. 1 internationally, his son said.
"He put the customer first," his son said, "which I think was revolutionary in the car business. They (dealers) had such a bad reputation." Longo also set a policy of working without a secretary and always answered his own telephone for every caller who asked for him.
While Longo's Toyotas roamed the freeways, Longo's radio ads, as interpreted by the freewheeling KFI comedy team, caught drivers' attention.
"I think it started pretty loosey-goosey from the beginning," Barkley said. "He encouraged it by not ever saying, 'Please don't do that or say that.' "
The ads were less commercials than snippets of bantering comedy. The team often touched only incidentally on the subject of car sales. "It was hard to know where the commercial started and the comedy material ended," Barkley said.
The spots created a mini-mythology of satire: Giant Longo Toyota was in Giant El Monte, where Happy Merry Workers fixed cars and Longo's imaginary, vicious dog Pal would corner the boss in his office or have puppies on his desk.
One day in 1979, Barkley recalled, the pair did something they rarely did--consulted the Longo Toyota ad copy in front of them--and saw that it was dated 1974. "We asked him about it, and he said, 'I don't want to give you anything (new) because I didn't want to change anything.' He didn't want to burden us with facts," Barkley joked.
As for the audience, Barkley said, "People figured if this man was willing to let us do that to his commercial, he must be a pretty good guy to deal with."
And although the radio character with the odd voice was not Longo, "a lot of my friends thought it was actually him," said Longo's son.
Gave to Charities
As his dealership succeeded, Longo donated cars to projects like high school driver education programs, and money to such charities as the Boys Club in El Monte and research into thalassemia, a genetic blood disorder among people of Mediterranean ancestry.
Because a family member suffers from cerebral palsy, his son said, Longo made donations to the Spastic Children's Foundation and to a scholarship at California State University, Los Angeles, for training those who research the disease or work with exceptional children.
In later years, Longo became fond of a different kind of transportation--horse-racing. And while none of his race-horses ever made it big, a few became middling winners on the circuit, said his son.
Longo is survived by his wife, two daughters, three sons, a brother and three sisters.
A funeral Mass is set for 10 a.m. today at Saints Felicitas and Perpetua Catholic Church in San Marino, with burial at Resurrection Cemetery in San Gabriel. The family asks that donations be made to the scholarship fund at Cal State Los Angeles' special education department.