Recently, deep in the mysterious and hidden hidden hot rod lair of Chevy Hardcore, our ‘shop guy’ was looking through some leftover parts from Project Blank Slate, and stumbled upon an old license plate frame among many loose parts. The frame was from Los Angeles Chevrolet dealer, Felix Chevrolet, and this find instantly begged the question, “Could this Camaro have come from one of the most iconic Chevrolet dealerships in the United States? We had to know, so we immediately headed off to visit the dealership with the big cat posing out front.
Located in downtown Los Angeles, Felix Chevrolet is a legendary dealership known worldwide for its official mascot — Felix the Cat, and it’s longevity in Southern California. The dealership opened its doors in 1922, though founder Winslow Felix officially founded the dealership in 1921, making Felix Chevrolet one of the oldest Chevy dealerships still operating in the U.S.
The tale of the famous dealership tells that Winslow Felix was a Mexican-American, born February 12, 1894 in Tucson, Arizona. Allegedly, according to a cousin’s account, he was born into a family of bankers who considered him the black sheep of the family. During World War I, he served in the tank Corps for nine months before returning to Los Angeles, at which time he began selling used cars, and founded Felix Chevrolet in 1921 at the corner of 12th and Olive streets in downtown Los Angeles, which was then called Auto Row.
Felix Chevrolet, circa 1935.
Bringing In The Cat
Felix was a successful businessman, and made many friends in those days. Among them was Pat Sullivan, a cartoon studio-head and colleague of Otto Messmer. In case you’re not sure where this is headed, Messmer invented the Felix The Cat character in 1919, while working with Sullivan. Sullivan owned the copyrights to the Felix character, and in 1923 — in exchange for a new car — he granted his friend Felix use of the figure for advertising at the 1923 Los Angeles Auto Show, further branding the now legendary Felix Chevrolet.
Along with running a successful dealership, Felix helped found the Greater Los Angeles Motorcar Dealers Association, a predecessor to organizations like JD Power and Associates, which rated both the performance of new cars, and also customer satisfaction. When he was not sponsoring auto races and baseball teams, Felix helped organize the Los Angeles Auto Show, which is now an iconic annual event of its own and in its 109th year.
He also started what was called the “Trial Purchase Plan” for new car owners, which allowed car buyers to bring their new car back to the dealership after two days for a refund on both the car and any gas in it, if not completely satisfied. In addition, Felix Chevrolet was the first dealership to offer at-home service calls, and sent service manager (and brother-in-law), Paul Parsons, to perform service calls at previous car buyer’s homes. Felix stated in a 1925 article, “We don’t wait for the owner to bring it to us when adjustments are necessary, Parsons makes them on the spot,”
“The dealership also had a three-wheeled motorcycle with a hook, battery booster, and a set of tools that could be used to work on cars. This “tow vehicle” was built so all the rider had to do was hook up to the car and tow it into the dealership if needed,” said Felix’s grandson, Bill Gonzalez.
Indeed, Felix was ahead of his time, and the fact that his name still shines in bright lights over Tinseltown is truly a testament to the impact the man, and the cat, have on the City of Angels.
His wealth and success however, might well have been his downfall. Felix began running with the Hollywood elite of the 1920s, which was a very hard-living crowd to keep pace with. His affair with silent-film actress Lois Wilson broke up his own family, though he and wife Ruth never divorced. Success and upper-crust living during this same era meant equestrian affairs were commonplace, and Felix played polo like many of his fellow friends who also were wealthy cats.
On May 31, 1936, Felix was playing against the Riviera Blues in a polo match for the Freebooters Team at the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, California when tragedy struck. Not long into the match, he collided with another player, sending both men flying off their mounts. Reginald “Snowy” Baker, the other player, pulled Felix off the course before both were trampled. Baker returned to the match, while Felix was rushed to a nearby hospital where he died the next day of a head injury sustained in the collision. He was 42 years old.
Following Felix’s death, his widow Ruth took over ownership of the dealership, even though General Motors had a policy at the time prohibiting female dealership owners. Company Controller Claude Craig actually ran the business for her from 1936 until his own death in 1955, which prompted her to finally sell the dealership, thus ending the family’s involvement in the dealership that her husband built.
A New Era Of Ownership
We don’t wait for the owner to bring it to us when adjustments are necessary, Parsons makes them on the spot. – Winslow Felix, founder of Felix Chevrolet
In 1955, Nikolas Shamass, a used car salesman, bought the dealership, including the rights to use the Felix image. Shamass began his automotive-sales career by refurbishing and selling used cars while he was a student at Fairfax High School, and later at Santa Monica College. He went on to open many successful used car dealerships in Los Angeles. Shamass switched to manufacturing war materials during WWII, but returned to used car sales after the war ended. In 1955, the purchase of the legendary Felix Chevrolet began his empiric rise in the downtown auto market, where he eventually owned eight dealerships under the Downtown L.A. Motors banner. In 1958, Shamass moved the already-famous Felix dealership to its current location at 3330 South Figueroa Street, next to the University of Southern California (USC) campus, near the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Shamass became involved in politics, serving on the Democratic Finance Committee, and helped to get President Kennedy elected. He also founded the Mexican-American Political Association, and was the first president of the World Lebanese Union. He was also active in the Southwest Rotary Club, Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, The Music Center, California Hospital, and St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, among his involvement in many philanthropic endeavors. Shammas passed away in 2003, after losing his battle with cancer. The Shammas Group is now helmed by his son-in-law, Daryl Holter, CEO of The Shammas Group, and president of the Figueroa Corridor Partnership, a business-improvement district that Shammas helped to establish.
Let’s Talk About The Cat
Signs, signs, everywhere the signs. The now iconic Felix three-sided sign that has adorned the Felix dealership since 1958 is a story unto itself. In 2007, the Cultural Heritage Commission, a mayor-appointed advisory group under the umbrella of the City Planning Department and the Office of Historic Resources, petitioned then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to declare the Felix Chevrolet dealership and its iconic neon sign as landmarks, which would legally restrict what could and could not be done to, or on the land, of the dealership based on that designation.
Though it seemed like a good and noble idea given the stature of the sign and dealership, as well as the current building being restored in 1946 by architect A Godfrey Bailey, controversy ensued. Though Mayor Villaraigosa had stated in writing that he would declare the dealership a landmark, he then did an about face, and sided with The Shamass Group, who opposed the designation. The opposition was based on the restrictions it would place on the group, in terms of limiting expansion or improvements — both on the lot, and potentially in the district. In 2012, the neon was replaced with LED lighting, which also sparked a movement to declare the site a landmark again, with a petition circulated by many of the original people seeking the designation. That petition also failed, and the LED lighting, though often malfunctioning by comparison to the old neon, is there to stay.
Vintage license plate frames from Felix Chevrolet.
Reverting back to our ’69 Camaro project, Blank Slate, and our quest for authentication of a Felix-sold Camaro … after contacting the General Motors Archives and the GM Heritage Center, we found that our project Camaro was manufactured at the Los Angeles plant. Based on the VIN, we were able to decode that it is a 1969 Camaro Coupe that came with a V8. As for the mystery of the plate frame from Felix Chevrolet on our Camaro, both GM and Felix recently stopped archiving records that far in the past, so our vintage license frame may well be the best hands-on physical evidence that our Camaro is in fact a Felix Chevrolet car.