Golf legend Arnold Palmer took many of his business endeavors into the automotive industry, endorsing his beloved Cadillac and longtime partner Hertz Corp. as well as owning six General Motors and Ford Motor Co. dealerships in five states.
Palmer, who died of complications from heart problems Sunday at age 87, was first and foremost the golf champion who brought the sport to the masses. But the name “Arnold Palmer” eventually would become as much of a brand as a symbol of a sport’s transformation.
The handsome and charismatic golfer took advantage of his position and started Arnold Palmer Enterprises Inc. in 1961.
By 1967, Palmer had made his move into automotive marketing, starring in TV commercials for Ford’s Mercury Cougar and Monterey and becoming a spokesman for Mercury until 1972.
In 1974, he bought his first dealership: Arnold Palmer Cadillac in Charlotte, N.C. Palmer partnered with his lawyer and sports agent, Mark McCormack, and the Detroit area Cadillac King, Don Massey.
Around that time, Cadillac started to offer an Arnold Palmer Signature trim level in some vehicles and put Palmer in its TV ads. He became a member of Team Cadillac, which meant he would wear a Cadillac patch on his sleeve during tournaments as an endorsement, said Glenn Blackburn, vice president-secretary of Arnold Palmer Enterprises.
Palmer also opened a Buick-Cadillac store, Arnold Palmer Motors, in his hometown of Latrobe, Pa., in 1981.
“We all know him as a businessman and entrepreneur and, at first, he was a professional golfer. That was his first love,” Blackburn said. “He thoroughly enjoyed the car business — he said he always wanted to be car dealer. And we’ll all miss him.”
Along the way, Palmer opened GM stores in California and Kentucky and Ford stores in South Carolina and Latrobe. His stores became major players in the fleet business in the late 1980s. Blackburn said Palmer revised his strategy and exited the business in the early 1990s.
Massey sold Arnold Palmer Cadillac in 2001 to Sonic Automotive. Only Arnold Palmer Motors remains open.
Ron Paluzzi, general manager at Arnold Palmer Motors in Latrobe, said Palmer was an active owner, although the store hadn’t seen him much in recent years. Paluzzi said many people may connect Palmer with golf — or, for the younger crowd, iced tea — but he said Palmer was a good businessman with a passion for the automotive world, too.
“He would beam when people started talking about the auto industry,” Paluzzi said. “He really loved the industry. It was something he was really proud of.”
Paluzzi is unsure of whom the dealership will be passed on.
Cadillac issued a statement Monday mourning Palmer’s passing.
“Throughout the years he was a great friend to those at our company and to our dealership partners through our involvement at the Masters and the Arnold Palmer Invitational,” a Cadillac spokesman wrote in an email. “He was truly a special person who instantly created a genuine connection with people and will be greatly missed.”
In 2014, Hertz celebrated its 30-year partnership with Palmer by donating $30,000 to the Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Orlando. Their partnership started in 1983, when Palmer appeared in commercials alongside O.J. Simpson as well as in print and radio ads.
Palmer was born in Latrobe on Sept. 10, 1929, and started to play golf when he was 4 years old. He was working as a caddy by age 11. Palmer went on to win two Pennsylvania high school championships and the West Penn Amateur Championship at 17.
In the 1950s, at a time when TVs were arriving at more households across the U.S. and golf was still a sport reserved for the country club, entered Palmer, the son of a greens keeper and golf professional at Latrobe Country Club.
His first professional win came at the 1955 Canadian Open — 61 more PGA Tour wins would follow.
Palmer is survived by his wife, Kathleen Gawthrop. His first wife, Winifred Walzer, died of cancer in 1999. He also is survived by his daughters, Peggy Wears and Amy Saunders; brother Jerry; sisters Louis Jean Tilley and Sandra Sarni; as well as by his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, The New York Times reported.