Al Gleekel, one of the last of metro auto dealers with a single location, combined personality with his own ideas of what was right.
Al Gleekel spent four decades selling new and used cars in the Twin Cities, but he was no ordinary salesman.
Gleekel, who died July 2 at age 86, was, by turns, personable, hard-working, ambitious, opinionated and committed to notions of gender and racial equality that were rare in the 1950s car industry. In addition, he was a risk-taker, leaving a job as general manager at Suburban Chevrolet in 1969 to start Penn Auto Plaza in Bloomington, one of the first Twin Cities dealerships for underdog American Motors Corp.
"Al was one of the last of his kind," said Ric Fohrman, a longtime Twin Cities auto dealer and friend of Gleekel, who lived in St. Louis Park. "Today there are big auto dealer groups, in which the same person owns a dozen dealerships. Al owned one dealership. He knew everybody and he was extremely hands-on - he was the first one there in the morning and the last one to leave at night, six days a week."
Gleekel started in the car business with his father on Lake Street in Minneapolis, soon after returning from World War II, where he was a Navy medical corpsman. It was a fateful decision, because the U.S. economy was on the rise, and there was a huge pent-up demand for new cars after production had ceased during the war.
He succeeded because he was well-liked in addition to being a good salesman.
"Al was very personable, tried hard to get to know his customers and paid careful attention to staff," Fohrman said. "Many of the same people who were with him when he opened Penn Auto Plaza in 1969, stayed with him until the early 1990s, when he retired. That's unusual, because in most car dealerships, people change all the time."
Gleekel also was determined to do what he thought was right, Fohrman said, whether it was telling American Motors and Chrysler "how to improve their products and give them more appeal," being among the first to hire women to sell cars, or telling any racial bigots he met in the auto industry that they were idiots.
"At a time when you didn't hear car dealers standing up for civil rights, he was adamant about it," Fohrman said.
In one of his most influential moves, Gleekel encouraged Chrysler to expand its Jeep sport utility business. The company eventually did, creating such popular models as the Jeep Grand Cherokee. As a member of the Greater Metro Automobile Dealers Association (and president at one time), Gleekel helped write Minnesota's consumer protection law for used-car buyers, which Fohrman called "one of the strongest laws in any state."
"He was a very fair and principled man, and I respected him," Fohrman said.
Gleekel is survived by his wife of 52 years, Barbara; two daughters, Janny Silver and Bonnie Levy; two sons, David and James; a brother, Sherry Gleekel; a sister, Sue Hallfin; six grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren. Services have been held.
Steve Alexander • 612-673-4553