When Irma Elder’s husband, James, died in 1983, he left her with three children and a Ford dealership — and the courage to become the first woman to own a Ford dealership in the Detroit area.
“Every penny that we had was put into keeping the dealership alive,” Irma Elder told Automotive News in June 2008. “It was absolutely necessary that I take over. My father said, ‘You have to do it.’ My mother said, ‘I’ll pray for you. It will be all right, because God takes care of widows.’ ”
Under her leadership and as a testament to her business acumen, that one Ford dealership grew into Elder Automotive Group, which became one of the largest woman- and minority-owned auto retailers in the country. Elder was 84 when she died in 2014.
By 2008, just before the start of the Great Recession, Elder Automotive operated 11 dealerships in Michigan and Florida, representing Aston Martin, Ford, Land Rover, Lincoln, Jaguar, Mercury, Saab and Jeep brands. And in the late 1990s and early 2000s, her Jaguar of Troy store in Michigan was the highest-volume Jaguar dealership in the U.S.
In 2008, she told Automotive News that the family-owned business had weathered several business storms over the years such as in the early 1980s when interest rates surpassed and hovered around 20 percent and when there were strikes at Ford Motor Co. and “we were out of cars.”
Elder was born in Xicoténcatl, Mexico, and didn’t speak English when she arrived in Florida as a teenager with her family in 1946, according to a biography she sent to Automotive News in 2000 and Elder Automotive’s website.
Osvaldo Garcia, a consultant with the Ford Minority Dealers Association, said he got know and worked with Elder several years ago, first in his role as diversity strategy manager at Ford Motor Co. and later as executive director of a Hispanic dealer association and in his current position.
Garcia said Elder was an astute entrepreneur who also had a nurturing personality.
He recalled one December when three or four dealers from southwest Texas stepped off an airplane into chilly Detroit, without coats, for a dealer meeting.
Elder, who was at the meeting, called her sons and had them bring coats to the dealers, Garcia said. “That’s the way she was — she was always thinking of others,” Garcia said.
In 2000, Elder was named one of Automotive News’ 100 Leading Women in the North American Auto Industry. The National Association of Minority Automobile Dealers awarded her its Lifetime Achievement Award in 2014 and she received numerous other awards over her career such as Ford’s President’s Award.
Today, the Elder group owns Jaguar-Land Rover and Hyundai-Genesis dealerships in Michigan and a Jaguar store and Jaguar-Land Rover dealership in Florida, according to its website.
In 2021 public auto retailer Lithia Motors bought two Elder Ford dealerships in the Detroit area and one in Tampa, Fla.
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