Julius Shulman Photographic Archive, Research Library, The Getty Research Institute
Largely forgotten today, entrepreneur and race car enthusiast John von Neumann was an important catalyst for the popularity of imported, small cars in post WWII America. Immigrating to the US from Austria before the war, von Neumann would move to California and fall in love with hot-rods and all things automotive. Initially joining the "team" at Roger Barlow's International Motors, one of the largest car importers in the country, he became disillusioned with the owner. Von Neumann opened his own sports car company-- Competition Motors in North Hollywood and began racing as a means of advertising.
In the 1950s von Neumann applied to the Porsche company in Germany for the right to distribute its car in America. Porsche executives told him he must also agree to sell another German car, the ungainly Volkswagen, if he wanted a sports car distributorship. Reluctantly he agreed and used his marketing skills to turn the unknown VW into a strong national brand. Initially selling only a few hundred of the VW bugs, by 1963 his company would sell 20,000+ annually across Southern California, Arizona and Southern Nevada. (Los Angeles Times. May 25, 1971) He quickly outgrew his North Hollywood location.
In 1961 von Neumann hired the firm of Paul R. Williams and Associates to design a modern headquarters for Competition Motors on a 13.25-acre tract in Culver City. The $2 million, one-story, multi-winged, 28,000 square feet structure would house administrative and zone sales offices, a training school for service staff, modern show rooms and a warehouse holding an inventory equivalent to 5 months supply of parts controlled by an IBM data processing system.
Von Neumann insisted his headquarters have only the latest technology to insure "speed and efficiency" for the staff and customers. Interviewed in a trade magazine, von Neumann proudly described his new warehouse: "A continuous-belt floor conveyor moves rubber-tired diverless trucks through warehouse isles and out to a loading platform. The trucks move at a speed of 100 feet per minute."( Auto Driver. November, 1962)
John von Neumann's VW dealership success was unparalleled in American automotive history. In 1953 the car was virtually unknown and there were no American dealers. By 1962 he had opened 57 dealerships in three states. Von Neumann believed his great success was predicated on selling a great product, "providing for customer needs at all times" and on keeping his dealers in good supply. When the new Competition Motors opened more than 200 civic and business leaders attended.
By 1964 Competition Motors had already outgrown its new building and at a press conference von Neumann unveiled his palns to double the size of the current facility. (Los Angeles Times. April 22, 1964)