Ivan Vassall Sr., 96, pioneer black auto dealer

Ivan Vassall Sr.
Ivan Vassall Sr.
Posted: November 11, 2012

Ivan Vassall Sr., 96, of Roxborough, who operated the first black-owned auto dealership in Philadelphia, died of cancer Thursday, Nov. 1, at home.

In May 1969, Jet magazine reported that Mr. Vassall and Edwin McClenton had become the first black owners of an automobile dealership in the Philadelphia area. The dealership, Vassall & McClenton Inc. in Germantown, was an American Motors franchise. After a few months, Mr. Vassall took over the dealership, which became Vassall Motors.

In 1974, Black Enterprise magazine named Mr. Vassall one of its Top 100 Chief Executives. He was honored that year by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

When Mr. Vassall moved his dealership to a new building in Roxborough in 1977, he appeared in a photo in Jet with Gerald C. Meyers, president of American Motors, and Roy D. Chapin Jr., chairman of the board.

Along with other African American leaders, Mr. Vassall was invited to meet with President Jimmy Carter at the White House. His photo has been displayed with those of other accomplished businessmen at the African American Museum in Philadelphia, said his wife, Mariah.

He often sold more than 1,000 cars a year, his wife said. He received bonus reward trips, she said, and they cruised the Rhine, vacationed in the Virgin Islands and Hawaii, and traveled to Africa twice.

"He was very fair and honest and treated people with respect," his wife said. Two of his sales staff went on to establish their own automobile dealership, she said, and he hired high school students to train as mechanics at his dealership.

In the 1980s, Vassall Motors became a Chrysler dealership. Mr. Vassall later had a Ford dealership in Chestnut Hill and then was a salesman for Fleming Motors in Bristol.

After retiring in the late 1980s, he accompanied friends and family members whenever they shopped for a car. "He knew all the salesmen," his wife said.

A native of Jamaica, Mr. Vassall immigrated to the United States in his 20s and began selling American Motors cars in Providence, R.I.

He met his future wife when she visited her sister in Providence. After marrying in 1963, they maintained a long-distance relationship for three years. She lived in Philadelphia while attending Women's Medical College of Pennsylvania and he continued to live in Providence. In 1966, he became a salesman at American Motors in Germantown, the franchise he eventually bought with the help of a loan from the Small Business Administration.

He and his wife raised a family in East Mount Airy and Glenside.

An accomplished tennis player, Mr. Vassall was a member of the American Tennis Association and belonged to several tennis clubs. He competed in numerous tournaments, his wife said, and once played a match with tennis legend Arthur Ashe.

Mr. Vassall was an elder with the Ivy Hill Congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in Mount Airy.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Muriel Dillon; sons Ivan Jr., Eric, and Andrew; 21 grandchildren; 37 great-grandchildren; and 15 great-great-grandchildren.

A memorial service will be at 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17, at Kingdom Hall of Jehovah's Witness, 6826 Ardleigh St.

Contact Sally A. Downey

at 215-854-2913 or sdowney@phillynews.com.

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