By on June 4, 2013

I enjoy highlighting automotive design, yet cars aren’t everything: architecture happens. So let’s combine ’em for the world of automotive retailing.

Witness a perfect moment in A.D.D. (Auto Dealer Design): the Mid Century Modern design of Duffield’s Lincoln-Mercury paired with a suicide door Continental. Photographer Julius Schulman did a solid to both man-made, Mad Men worthy items: taking advantage of the facility’s rectilinear-ness, the Continental’s unique doors, a perfect shadow and a pretty girl for scale and perspective.

This is one reason why you love(d) certain car dealerships. Then again, step back, remove the artsy-fartsy elements and let the local marketing change it all.

Apparently Mid-Century design is NOT mass-market retail friendly. Maybe you want the lifestyle of Mr. Schulman’s photograph, but we all know you’re leaving with ‘dat $2168.00 Mercury Comet.


Perhaps it’s time to examine modern dealerships…sporting all that manufacturer-demanded style!

No surprise: BMW does a fantastic job.  If the dealer has the real estate, they sport a rotunda that emulates the “four cylinders” of the corporate office.  Far from a facade re-skin, this is arguably the best designed dealership plan by the automakers. To wit:


Mercedes’ blue pillars with vanilla-steampunk metal elements in front of the requisite luxury car glass walls doesn’t work. I see it speaking to Local Motors’ quirky mechanical wonders on wheels. While far from offensive, does this work with a somewhat conservative, hood-ornament bedazzled luxury car brand?

Since the Volkswagen Auto Group is far from stuffy and conservative, both the Audi and Porsche boyz make some interesting spaces that emulate their vehicle’s Teutonic designs.  Porsche dealers emulate the newer buildings in Porsche’s home in Zuffenhausen quite well.  It’s an appealing grouping.


Lexus’ modern, minimalist mushroom-topped buildings had a charm that grew on you…just like the 1990 LS 400. While the textures changed from ribbed pillars and roofs to modern, BMW-like, square paneling, you know a Lexus dealer when you see one.

Unless you visit Escondido California.  Wow: a stunning wedge of (mixed use) office building with the Lexus Mushroom in the entryway.  This is why America rocks…right?

Infiniti is another story.  Their original buildings had a cubist theme rivaling the hipness of the grille-less, belt-buckle face on the original Q45. The new design puts a glass wave of modest elegance to any current building.  Not bad, but forgettable compared to other brands.  Then again…if the cars are this forgettable…

…but it could be worse…

Photo Courtesy: Performance Ford-Lincoln

Oh my damn. Admittedly, the standalone Lincoln dealerships (all 17 of them?) are far better.  But the not-expensive, supremely cosmetic facade-upgrades of their blocky entryway do not scream luxury. The black marble is cool, but that’s only one element looking for more. This isn’t a rotund BMW dealership: much like their product, Lincoln buildings are needs a more unique platform.

I was going to say something slightly similar–but less negative–about Cadillac.  Until this: cheaper Cadillac buildings have the same tall entryway on a mundane box of a facility, but there’s something refreshing about their lightly colored stone, all that lightly-tinted glass and the supremely traditional Cadillac script logo on top.  And when lucky enough to add it to a dealership this round, tall and impressive…well, it’s a done deal. The mix of color and glass seems more inviting and more upscale than the starkness of Lincoln dealers.

So what do you think about A.D.D.? Well, I hope you have a lovely day.

(If the comments section warrants it, I’ll dig into non-luxury brands next time ’round. Come on Son, you know you want it!)

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53 Comments on “Vellum Venom Vignette: Auto Dealership Design?...”

  • avatar

    Is that a TR-4 on the street in front of Duffield’s?

    I remember that woman’s 60’s style of dress with the wide belt. How many women could pull that off in today’s diabese world?

    God, I love clean minimalism.

    PS… I think the photog is Julius ShULman

    • 0 avatar

      Using my magnifying glass, I’d say the roadster in front of Duffields is a Sunbeam Alpine. Judging by the design of the hardtop, it’s either a Series I(1959-early 1961) or Series II(late 1961-1962).

      And, yes, the correct spelling for the late photographer is Julius Shulman, a very famous architectural photographer of the period, though I don’t have enough personal knowledge to confirm that he actually made this photograph.

    • 0 avatar

      Name correction made. Sorry about that.

  • avatar

    look up Tasca Ford, Lincoln, Volvo & Mazda in Cranston,RI to see a behemouth of a building that houses a gorgeous interior…right now they are remodeling theformer Mercury space for Lincoln complete with marble service entrance and dark wood. Their East Providence store,however, has never been remodeled since 1965 while the signage still shows the ford/Lincoln-Mercury branding from the late 80s. it’s like stepping back in time when compared to the other.

  • avatar

    Jake Sweeney Chevrolet in Springdale, OH – my dealership – has a unique design, and there are several B&W photos of it around the inside. Pretty cool, and only a few changes over the years to the main building. You can still see the original lines.

    He has several dealerships in the same area – a little empire, and his complex has become sprawling.

    So far they have served us well.

  • avatar

    “But the not-expensive, supremely cosmetic facade-upgrades of their blocky entryway do not scream luxury.”
    No. Instead, they seem to scream “Lincoln: It’s a Ford with shiny bits!”

  • avatar

    Back in the 1960’s , VW had a very specific Dealership building design , I know a few are still out there being used as other business’ now ~ Palmdale , Ca. is a paint store , not much else has changed about the exterior though .

    Pasadena , Ca. has several 1930’s Art Deco Dealership buildings on Colorado Blvd. re purposed away from Automobiles sadly .


  • avatar

    The wife and I looked at a house earlier this year that was originally designed and built for a Cadillac dealer in the 50s, in all its midcentury-modern, rectilinear glory. It had a covered carport instead of a garage – unheard of for New England, but the better for showing off the rotating cast of gorgeous postwar Cadillacs that would originally have called it home. Ultimately the place needed more work than we could afford to bring into the modern era, but I’m still going to go through the rest of my life regretting letting it get away.

    • 0 avatar

      In 1954 or ’55, my family moved into a new house in a new suburb of Toronto called Don Mills. Our house, along with nearly every other house in the neighbourhood, had a carport rather than a garage. Definitely not as practical in a cold climate as a garage, but undoubtedly less expensive, at a time and place when that really mattered.

      Today, my wife and I live in a townhouse in downtown Toronto, built in 2000. With a carport (the roof of which doubles as a deck off the kitchen).

      Plus ça change….

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    Sajeev, this is a really great post on a subject that is too infrequently covered. As car people, we spend a fair amount of time looking at and sitting in these places, and I’m sure many readers here have opinions. I look forward to hearing some of them, and also to seeing you offer critiques of some of the buildings’ interiors also.

    • 0 avatar

      No matter what the exterior looks like, we spend most of our time in salesmen’s cubicles haggling or the service department waiting room out back. Good luck finding pictures of those. I know people of a certain age who actually check out the service department waiting room before buying from a dealer. No bathroom, no sale.

  • avatar

    One of the great designs was Bob Peck Chevrolet in Arlington, VA. That one was recently demolished though the glass office tower that replaced it carries forward the theme of the original architect. Nice article in the Washington Post at

  • avatar

    It’s still 1979 throughout southern Illinois. Most of the Chevy/Ford dealerships in small towns still have linoleum tiled floors. Kind of fun to visit — owners spouse is usually the bookkeeper and Jr. is the sales manager.

    • 0 avatar

      One nice thing about dealerships like that is that the proprietors are more likely to subscribe to a “don’t sh*t in your own backyard” business model. I’ve had much, much better experiences with a dealer in the small town in which my mom was raised than with big-city dealerships. The latter have a big enough pool of potential customers that dishonesty and corner-cutting can benefit them, at least in the short term.

    • 0 avatar

      @davidziff I worked in one of those exact dealerships…

  • avatar

    Since we can’t post pictures here, everyone interested in this subject should Google Bob Spreen Cadillac in Downey, CA.

    A great example of bright, airy mid-century dealership architecture, complete with a fountain/gazebo out front to display a car, highlighted in the dealership’s television commercials for years. The place closed long ago and became a Honda store, now also out of business.

  • avatar

    Denver’s senior BMW dealer moved to a new, bespoke space 4ish years ago, and I love seeing the design language isolated from the Mini/Honda branding their old site used. And then they build an Infinity dealer across the street (different dealer) and the contrast is downright fascinating.

    • 0 avatar

      My local BMW dealer is also the local Infiniti dealer, and the only examples of each in the state. They have a single building, sort of. The BMW store is on the left, the Infinity store is on the right, but the service bays are in the middle, with a shared roof over them. You drive your car in a single door and the bays are to either side. Each of the showrooms is decorated in their respective corporate style.

      What is interesting to me is that other than that roof over the service bays and the door leading into it, they share NOTHING. Completely separate staff right down to the two cashiers and two parts departments. BMW never touches Infiniti and vice-versa!

      The other interesting local building is our former Jaguar-MG-Triumph dealership. A large soaring edifice that I loved driving past as a kid with all the cool sportscars arrayed out front. Now it is a U-Haul center. Ugh.

  • avatar
    juicy sushi

    No mention of the Max Hoffman Auto Showroom done by Frank Lloyd Wright?

    It’s not as good some of the others, but still pretty unique.

  • avatar

    I recall a Pontiac dealership in Olympia, WA in the 60`s that was set back from the road and in a park-like setting. Cannot find any pictures of it, but haven`t seen anything like it since.

  • avatar

    The Mercedes dealership is about the only interesting one in the group. The design is far from steampunk; instead, the building is a modernist metallic interpretation of American craftsman style. The exposed roof beams are a dead give away.

    The point of the building therefore is to accentuate the engineering and detail oriented craftswork bestowed upon each piece. You can see that the roof beams are cross drilled for aesthetic and lightness, though the additional engineering detail is probably not necessary for the roof to function properly. The framing structure is probably made from polished stainless or or some kind of brushed steel and probably has similar detailed elements to the roof pillars. The HVAC system is unlikely to be a spaghetti bowl of black spray-painted standard pieces. The building is only a car dealership so it’s difficult to know how much detail went into the design, but the exterior eves suggest Mercedes spent quite a lot.

    The remaining dealerships are relatively boring. The BMW dealership is just industrial Bauhaus with a rotunda. The Ford and Cadillac dealerships are shoddy neo-classical or neo-Egyptian temple building with a dash of post-modern ugly. The Porsche-Audi dealership looks like recycled modern design from the 1960s with an early 1980s digital graphic facade. Infiniti is the same, but with weird postmodern glass window.

    The two Lexus dealerships are a bit more interesting. The first looks like some sort of homage to Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie style. The building is horizontally sprawling and bottom heavy (window design) with a low slung roof and a pillared “porch” area. The second dealership is sort of temple-like, but with a sort of airplane hangar look that implies travel, mobility, speed, etc.

    • 0 avatar

      “..shoddy neo-classical or neo-Egyptian temple building..

      Struck me as more neo-Aztec and I don’t wanna walk up no baby Aztec temple ’cause I know what happens at the top.

    • 0 avatar

      The Mercedes store and Lexus of Escondido are the most impressive to me. The Lexus palace would have me worrying that I was paying too much though.

  • avatar

    Before their unlamented death, Hummer actually had a few theme stores that I thought was pretty well done and true to their ‘tough guy’ theme. Land Rover does a similar job but to a lesser scale.

  • avatar

    Mercedes vacated the Frank Lloyd Wright Mercedes showroom not too long ago, and sadly, the interior was not landmarked and they’ve since demolished it. What a shame.

  • avatar

    Here in the (not so) glamorous Silicon Valley, we have at least one well-preserved mid-century-modern dealership. Here’s a page with a few pix:[email protected]/sets/72157619829235816

    Interior shot of Stevens Creek Toyota:

    I walked through this building during a tour of mid-century architecture; it’s truly awesome, friendly, airy, and extremely functional after fifty-odd years.

    Sajeev: Fabulous topic and pictures; many thanks! More, please.


  • avatar

    Standalone Lincoln dealership do have some of that old-time ’60s modernism in them:

  • avatar

    About 10 or so years ago, our local Mercedes dealer opened a new location in a posh suburb. They spent a mint on this massive, faux-Tuscan building with heavy woodwork and “classical” accents.

    Mercedes must have been ultimately unhappy with this, as the building has recently sprouted an incongrous glass and steel box on one side. Turns out, they’re remodeling the whole thing- no more carved wood, tile flooring, or faux-finished paint. Instead they’re getting more glass, metal, and white walls, complete with those awful blue pillars.

  • avatar

    The whole concept of branded architecture is sad, if you ask me. I grew up near a very old (by US standards) BMW dealership, one that long predated the brand’s ascendancy in the ’80s. Their building was a nice, understated pre-War structure with limestone brickwork surrounding the plate glass windows. It wouldn’t shock me if the building had housed a Packard, Pierce-Arrow, or Peerless dealership in the past. (The building had always been a dealership and garage; the original service bays were and are still in use.)

    I say the building *was* nice because at some point in the ’90s, presumably under orders from a BMW marketing genius, the limestone bricks got covered with whitewashed concrete. In other words, they actively made the building worse to bring it into conformity with BMW’s other dealerships.

    To make matters worse still, 5-10 years later the dealer moved its BMW operation to a different location and set up its Land Rover franchise in the old building. At that point, the whitewashed concrete got covered up with Land Rover’s trademark “Timberland store at a mall” facade. With apologies to icemilkcoffee, it’s an atrocity. Somewhere under all that crap is a nice building, but you’d never know it.

  • avatar

    Do A.D.D. architects include the mounts for the inflatable gorillas on the roof or did the dealer have to pay to upgrade?

  • avatar

    Most dealerships down here in south FL are of the “auto mall” variety: huge, mega dealers with multiple brands all on one shared site. Thus they don’t have any of this corporate look going on, which makes them all kind of boring. Some have begun to realize that having a parking garage so your inventory is covered allows people to shop rain or shine. Thus everything is just a generic huge box.

  • avatar

    I was driving by a Lexus dealership and basking in it’s strange Brutalist glory. To me, it sort of represents how they approach the LS cars. It’s solid, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed in a very long time.

  • avatar

    I visited a BMW dealer in Germany last year. Looked exactly the same as the modern (new buildings) one back home, except in German.

    Oh, and the fact you could get diesels in everything, including the five door 1 series.

    I’ve always enjoyed the relative levels of design and luxury. Our local Chryco shop…all the glory of a shipping dock. A visit to BMW or MB…a visit to an art museum that has cars and free soda. Audi is Ikea design…

    I guess you need to set the stage for a bigger transaction.

  • avatar
    Kyree S. Williams

    I love driving by the Bob Moore Audi building in my town. It looks very sophisticated without being over the top.

  • avatar

    I live about 5 miles away from Lexus of Escondido…. and yes, its damn near palatial. Inside it feels open and airy…. and there’s a glass elevator to take you to the upper levels… the upper level is a restaurant! Also included inside is a ‘cyber cafe’ and putting greens…. yes no joke. Also the sheer size of the place is impressive…. it’s gigantic.

  • avatar

    They all look like Bauhaus Motors Ltd.

  • avatar

    In Cincinnati the Lincoln dealership just took over the old Land Rover-Jag dealer, in a boring grey building. Don’t think they did anything except paint it. The LR dealer built a new site, one of their adventure models

    Also in Cincinnati (NKY) the Lexus RiverCenter still uses the old original design. I can’t believe it every time I drive past.

  • avatar

    Can someone fill me in on that creepy, 1960’s art-deco Ford facade that Bertel Schmitt likes to use on the U. S. New Car Sales articles?

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