By Eric Barton
City & Shore Magazine – The Luxury Issue
If you sought out America’s first Honda car franchise in 1970, the guys at the adjoining motorcycle dealership would’ve pointed you to a tiny building in which you would’ve found a girl, three years away from high school graduation, brimming with what could only be described as unbridled excitement for a vehicle few people wanted.
Rita Case remembers it clearly, because she says trying to sell a $1,200 car that looked like a toy to Americans who drove land yachts back then made her who she is. If you want to get good at sales, she says, start by selling something nobody wants – yet.
“You walk in, and that was me, sitting in this little building with maybe two little bitty cars with motorcycle engines in them. I was sitting in there, and of course I was super enthusiastic, and I’m like, ‘Man isn’t this thing cool? I’m driving one to school every day.’ But the Honda car was still considered a pregnant roller skate at the time.”
Her story is a tale about breaking barriers, defying what people thought she could be, or maybe about what women in general are capable of doing; and about ignoring what they said she couldn’t do. Her story is also about becoming the best at what she does, becoming No. 1, and, as she says it, never wanting that to change.
The bitty car dealership took up a corner of her father’s Honda motorcycle dealership in Santa Rosa, Calif. She had been raised on the floor of that dealership, answering the phones, sweeping the floors, wiping down the bikes and fielding questions from customers since she was 7, when her dad first opened the place in 1959. In high school she started handling the books for mom and dad and then became the lead salesperson when they landed the franchise to sell Honda cars.
It was all Case wanted back then, to take over the family business, and she became GM after graduating UC-Davis. In 1976, she decided to try to organize a gathering of all 18 dealers in America selling Honda cars. They met in Hawaii, Case the only woman at the table. It wasn’t just that female salespeople were rare back then, but she had earned success at her father’s dealership and had been the one to put the meeting together.
“I absolutely remember it like yesterday,” Case says. “I remembered walking into that room knowing I was going to be the only woman.”
Across from her was a man from Ohio who, famously among the dealers there, ran the country’s largest Honda motorcycle lot. He happened to be the only other single person at the table, all the other dealers bringing their wives, so naturally Rita and Rick sat next to each other at dinner that night. They shared an intensity about business, about selling cars, not just because it was their jobs but also their hobbies, are where they found their family. Really everything they cared about was on that lot. They were undeniably alike: Rick had begun selling cars at 14, when he bought a junker, fixed it up and made a profit selling it. By 19, he had his own car lot. She recalls that she had a goal to show that a woman could be a great car dealer, and Rick wanted to prove “that he was the biggest and the baddest and the best” in the business.
“We were definitely interested in each other immediately,” Case recalls. The problem is that they lived a few thousand miles apart, and neither of them wanted to give up the careers they had built. So they’d meet up several times a year at national car dealer meetings. Soon, they were talking regularly, then at least once a day, back when long-distance calls meant something, mostly sharing details of what was working selling Hondas.
They went on their first date in August 1979 when Rick came out to California and they rode motorcycles north to Canada. Rick brought a friend along to chaperone, as required by her parents.
He asked her to marry him, and she flew out to Cleveland. It was snowing and freezing. Case remembers, “And I’m like, ‘Holy crap, what did I get myself into?’”
In Ohio, they partnered to make Rick’s dealership bigger, better, the best. “Before he met me, he had already tasted the goal for being number one,” Case says. Soon though, they were buying up other dealerships in Ohio and then Florida and Atlanta, adding Hyundai, Acura, KIA, Volkswagen, Maserati and Alfa Romeo.
The secret, she says, is that Rita and Rick Case have always been selling something people want, even when they didn’t know it yet. They also created a mantra in 1980, that their customers were their friends, and it’s something she says has set them apart, this idea that it’s not just about the car you’re buying right now. “Everybody loves to talk about cars. Everybody. Men, women, children. I mean, even 5 year olds want to play with cars,” she says. “Everyone is always looking at their next car, so it’s really a fun product to sell. It’s constantly changing, people need them, and I’m enthusiastic about selling them, because I have a burning desire to always be No. 1. I mean, who doesn’t want to be great at what they’re doing?”
Since those humble days selling the pregnant skateboards with the motorcycle engines, Case also graduated to selling Italian touring cars, German estate saloons, the finest of things. She figured out how to define luxury, which she says buyers should look for in an interior, in the hand stitching on the edges of the leather, the grain in the wood inlays in the dash. That’s not necessarily about spending a fortune – Hondas, she says, have graduated to some of the best family car interiors these days. And Case – while she has access to far more expensive vehicles – drives a Genesis, a South Korean vehicle she says has an interior that would surprise those who only drive German.
“Luxury,” she says, “is on the inside of the car, not the outside of the car.”
Case is running the company herself for the first time after 40 years splitting the work with her partner. In September, Rick Case died at 77 after a fight with cancer. Case says she knows that he would want her to keep fighting for No. 1.
“Rick isn’t in the commercials anymore. He was namesake, and I do not want to dilute his legacy, but nothing is going to change with our goals.”
One way Case says she’ll honor the memory of her husband is to continue hosting the Boca Raton Concours d’Elegance, originally scheduled to take place this month at the Boca Raton Resort & Club but postponed because of coronavirus concerns to Feb. 25-27, 2022. She recalls that Rick Case dreamed up the event 14 years ago as a way to benefit the Boys & Girls Clubs, and while the Concours had to take a necessary break for 2021, Case says it’ll come back “with the same enthusiasm and commitment” next year.
She also has the next generation of dealers, son Ryan and daughter Raquel, both in the business, growing up at the dinner table talking about how to sell cars.
“This was our passion, our hobby and our downtime. Our vacation was at the dealership,” Case says. “Whatever happens, we’re not losing our No. 1 position.”
PHOTO: Rita Case, photographed by Mary Beth Koeth