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L.A. THEN AND NOW

Cartoon Feline Is Catalyst for Car Dealer's Success

Since the 1920s, Felix the Cat has helped a Chevy franchise stake out its territory in the local automotive market.

April 03, 2005|Cecilia Rasmussen | Times Staff Writer

Winslow Felix belonged to a carousing outfit called the Uplifters Club in Rustic Canyon, which was a favorite stop on the international polo circuit.

At the club, money and clout were taken for granted, and polo was at the heart of it all. The club's polo roster eventually included such celebrities as Will Rogers, Walt Disney, Spencer Tracy and Daryl F. Zanuck.

On May 31, 1936, Felix was playing in a polo match on the Freebooters team against the Riviera Blues at the Riviera Country Club. Minutes into the hotly contested match, Felix's horse collided with Reginald "Snowy" Baker's mount, throwing both riders to the ground.

Baker ignored injuries to his head and shoulder to get himself and Felix off the field before they were trampled. Baker went back to the game while Felix was rushed to the hospital, where he died the next day of a head injury. He was 42.

His widow, Ruth, took over the business -- which defied General Motors' policy against women running dealerships. But although she was the owner, she was merely a figurehead.

"Claude Craig was the company controller, who my grandfather called 'Old Eagle Eye' because he was so clever with numbers," Gonzalez said. "He was the one who really ran the company."

When Craig died in 1955, Ruth Felix sold the business for $675,000 to used-car salesman Nickolas N. Shammas.

The Felix dealership became the linchpin of an empire that eventually included seven automobile dealerships under Felix Cadillac-Chevrolet and the Downtown L.A. Motors banner. Shammas bought the landmark Petroleum Building at Flower Street and Olympic Boulevard in 1969 and turned it into his headquarters. In 1958, Shammas moved the Felix dealership to its present site on Figueroa near the newly opened Harbor Freeway. On top, he erected a giant neon sign of the black cat with huge white eyes, grinning over the Figueroa corridor.

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