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Dale Matthews: Once the youngest car salesman in the Northwest

SOUTHEAST HISTORY


COURTESY OF DALE MATTHEWS - Hey whats that kid doin in the 1938 Chevy? She didnt know about it at the time, but its that Dale Matthews kid, about 12 years old, taking his moms car for another joy ride. Those who love cars, and many who don’t, still remember the first auto they ever bought.

From a pristine black Studebaker to a 1963 Chevy Impala SS, or a once-in-a-lifetime 1932 Ford Roadster, that first purchase would be a memorable lifetime highlight.

For Dale Matthews, as he described in his book “Every Deal’s Different”, his most memorable prize was a 1932 Black DeSoto Coupe, with dual side mounts and shiny silver grille that he purchased back in 1954 for a cool $165.00. Not a bad price, considering Dale was earning only $15.00 a month washing cars at Ray Rathbone’s on S.E. 82nd Avenue at the time. Dale was then a mere 13 years old – and he was the proud owner of a car he couldn’t legally drive!

That was one of the many incidents in the “school of hard knocks” as Dale Matthews learned the used-car business, eventually leading to the ownership of one of Portland’s premier vintage car shops – Matthews’ Memory Lane Motors, at 25th and S.E. Holgate Boulevard.

Before he became consumed in the world of cars, growing up during the 1950’s, Dale spent endless hours playing catch on the baseball diamond at Woodmere Grade School, and in the many open fields then to be found in Southeast Portland. His unrestrained energy and persistence in his early years contributed to the success he attained in the car business.

Picking berries and shoveling snow off wintery sidewalks, he collected enough cash to make his first purchase of a wheeled vehicle – a “News Boy Special” Schwinn Wasp bicycle that he could use on his paper route near S.E. Duke in the vicinity of 72nd Avenue.

Matthews’ first taste of car fever occurred when he spotted a Doodlebug scooter in the basement of a friend’s house, and in the next few months he was buying old and used miniature motorbikes at $10.00 a pop – and Dealin’ Dale resold them to other kids for from $20.00 to $35.00. The price of each bike depended on the time he’d spent fixing it up.

Dale graduated to the four-wheel type of vehicle when he practiced driving his mother’s 1938 Chevy Coupe when she parked it at the Rodgers Five and Dime where she worked. According to Dale, she never found out – but these private, self-directed driving lessons came to an end when the police started receiving calls about a youngster driving a car around town.

You could say that Dale literally grew up on the streets: The streets of S.E. 82nd Avenue, where used car lots proliferated during the 1950’s. Some 45 new car dealerships offered the latest models available around Portland and its outskirts. For the teenager, or families with little disposable income to spend on cars, Union Avenue (now Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd.), or along 82nd Avenue, was the place to see and test-drive the largest selection of used vehicles; nearly 150 used car lots offered anything from Chevy Nomads to your father’s Packard.

As a punk kid of age 11, when most teenage boys were riding bicycles, reading comic books, or finishing homework for school, Dale was more interested in cars. Every spare minute, he was pestering the salesmen at Ray Rathborne’s dealership about the makes, models, or years of the cars that came in. It was a time when you could distinguish between a Ford and a Chevy simply by the sound of the motor.

He learned the ropes of the business from his mentor, Paul Stukey, who hung around buying cars from customers who’d been turned away by the low offers of other salesmen along the strip. Ray Rathborne hired Dale to be “the Ginga Din of the car lot” – cleaning the interiors of cars, polishing the chrome fenders, or running errands for the sales staff. He even sold Dale a used 1932 Chevy two-door sedan, with a bad clutch, for $40.00, that he knew he wouldn’t be able to drive. But it was the prized black DeSoto that Dale traded in his ’32 Chevy for, that led to the downfall in their relationship.

The coupe was being stored in the back lot of Rathborn’s car lot, so Dale’s parents wouldn’t know what he had invested in – and until he was old enough for a learner’s permit to drive his dream car. In his book Dale recalled, “On my usual trek to Rathbone’s after school, one day the ’32 De Soto was gone. Ray had sold it. I got my first taste of reality in the used car business.”

His enthusiasm for cars was not dampened by this unhappy experience, but he did leave Rathborn’s to hire on at Pacific Car Sales owned by Tom Wortindyke, where he helped sell cars to customers overlooked by salesmen too busy with their own transactions, or drove the company vehicle around Portland to pick up parts and supplies for the shop, even though he was still underage and still without a legal driver’s license. The staff tended to look the other way when he drove off on an assignment.

In 1959, Tom Wortindyke, and his new partner Bill Moak, decided to open a Volvo dealership in Gresham – and an eighteen-year-old teenager named Dale Matthews was put in charge to run it.

With few car-buyers traveling to Gresham, and little interest at that time in buying a Volvo, sales were dismal; and, with no customers, Dale only became experienced at playing a guitar and singing country and western music. Dale turned into a salesmen by day and a singer by night.

When the Volvo dealership finally closed, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity opened before him. His boss Tom decided to go back into the used car business with a new partner! He opened a car lot at 72nd and S.E. Foster, and the big sign overhead read, “Tom and Dale’s Used Cars – City’s Youngest Car Dealer”. How could a kid refuse such an offer? He didn’t, of course. At age 19, Dale was on top of the world.

Cars, girls, music, and fast food were a big part of life as a teenager in the 1950’s and early ’60’s, and there was no better place to meet than at the local drive-in restaurant.

Cruising was a popular pastime for Portland teens, and anyone with a nifty car was to be found parked under the bright neon lights of the Tik Tok Restaurant at Sandy and Burnside, or The Specks Drive-In at Foster Road and S.E. Powell. These were the perfect places for a salesman like Dale to show up in his latest classic car, and have it sold or traded for a better vehicle within the week. Dale was living in the fast lane: Married at 19, father to two young boys by 23, and divorced by the next year. Jamming with the boys and those late nights out were taking their toll on his car sales, and finally Tom Wortindyke decided his kid partner wasn’t quite the right fit for their dealership, and the partnership was dissolved.

Next stop was Ernie Wakehouse Motors. Ernie was a former military pilot who flew dangerous missions during the Korean War. His strict military training and attention to detail, and his requirement that Dale show up to work on time, kept Mr. Matthews in line. No more late nights; no more party time.

But Dale’s training was cut short by the Army, and he wound up in a uniform, assigned as a NCO in charge of training. Nonetheless, he did continue his wheeling and dealing ways, working part time at the front desk of a nearby Motel 6, and playing gigs in taverns in the evening. He even found time to sell a car or two that were parked in front of the motel. It was as if he never slept – he was a man on a mission. When his stint in the military was over, it was back to Wakehouse Motors, doing what he does best – selling cars. With his experience under his belt, and tons of confidence, Dale felt there wasn’t a customer he couldn’t talk into thinking of buying a car.

But it turned out to be a pretty young girl from Vancouver, Washington, who proved to be the one tough cookie for him: Try as he might, he couldn’t sell Patty Kemp any of the Wakehouse Motors specials, but he did sell her on his music. She showed up at the nightclub where he was performing, and eight months later they were married. From 1967 to 1971 Dale continued working for Ernie Wakehouse, but the urge to run his own dealership was just too strong, and he went looking for a good spot to do so on McLoughlin Boulevard. In the end, his old friend Bill Moak made him an offer he couldn’t refuse, and for the next 7-1/2 years Dale Matthews was part-owner of a Chevrolet dealership in Canby.

In the end, he wanted to be the sole owner of his business, and he found a vacant spot at S.E. 52nd at Foster Road, and it was for rent. In the late summer of 1979 Matthews Car Company opened for business selling classic cars. In the following 37 years, Matthews became ever more certain that buying and selling low-mileage classic cars was the only business he wanted to run.

After spending fifteen years on Foster Road, Dale bought an established classic car business – now renamed Matthews’ Memory Lane Motors – on the southeast corner of S.E. 26th and Holgate Boulevard. There he sells some of Portland’s most classic cars.

The secret behind Dale Matthews’ success?

Honesty, and a buy-back policy. With a wide grin on his face, Dale strictly follows his own motto: “I tell ’em how much I paid for it, and how much I want, and what I’ll buy it back for – if they return the car in the same, or better, condition.” He has sold over 7,000 cars in his lifetime…so far! The 21st Century has brought changes to the classic car business, and to Matthews’ Memory Lane Motors. Teens today no longer have an interest in owning a cool ’67 Corvette, or a souped-up Mustang Mach II with pin-striping and wide mag wheels. As Dale relates, “Most buyers today have grey hair, or no hair at all.” These car enthusiasts are nostalgic about the past, and they love the car they are looking at, says Dale. Finalizing a deal with Dale Matthews is like shaking hands with a good-hearted uncle or a close friend. Now 70 years of age, Dale spends his days keeping track of his inventory of classic cars, looking up old friends, and of course, selling classic cars. But he can still sing a song and handle a guitar; he wrote and sang a Memory Lane Motors tune posted on his website. Dale Matthews is true to himself and to his values. As the old song reminds us, “Be nice to everybody on your way up, ’cuz you’ll meet ’em coming down again.”