VICTORVILLE — An iconic car dealership that’s been located on Route 66 for more than six decades is changing hands after drawing countless car buyers and thousands of tourists.
Owner Patrick Matlach of Desert Motors said the car lot’s nostalgic neon sign, with its curved yellow arrow, will still shine bright long after he hands over the dealership to his friend, Sam Shihab. Desert Motors opened in 1951 and has been in its current location on D Street near First Street in Old Town Victorville since 1954.
“Sam is the owner of Sid’s Automotive, which is located across the street, and European Automotive in Victorville,” Matlach told the Daily Press. “He’s been around for nearly 20 years and he’s a good man that I fully trust to keep the legacy of this dealership alive.”
The 85-year-old Matlach, who decided to hand the business over to Shihab due to health issues, said Shihab has big plans for the dealership that once supplied the movie industry with classic cars and has been photographed by tourists from all over the world.
“The lot is empty now because I’m just focusing on gathering up and closing accounts,” Matlach said. “Once Sam takes over, I’m sure that will change.”
Shihab said he understands the cultural significance of Route 66 and its shared history with the rise of the automobile industry, and he spoke of the importance of keeping “Patrick’s legacy alive through the dealership.”
“Long after the popularity of Route 66 faded, Patrick continued to sacrifice so much to keep this place thriving,” Shihab said. “The place will still remain Desert Motors and we will keep that nostalgic feel. We will also be known once again as the Route 66 Car Garden, a fitting name for the longest running used-car dealership on Route 66.”
Matlach said part of the nostalgic feel of the car lot is the multiple strings of clear-glass light bulbs that once shined on newly-waxed cars at night.
“You came around that bend in the road and you were greeted by a magical glow of lights,” Matlach said. “It was like moths being drawn by the light. You know, many of those moths drove off in a Chevy, Ford or Chrysler.”
As Matlach thumbed through the book “Route 66: Lives on the Road,” he explained that in 1954 he moved the dealership, once located closer to Interstate 15, to its present location after the construction of the first bypass to downtown Victorville began.
“That bypass really cut into our business because all that traffic from San Bernardino to Barstow did not come through here,” Matlach said. “Before moving down the road a bit, I must have sold 600 cars a year in that old lot.”
Matlach said he still remembers selling his first car, “a light-green, ‘33 Chevy Deluxe, four-door, with twin mounts and a trunk in the back,” to his friend, “a man by the name of Willie Green.”
“He lived across the tracks and he was my best booster because he said I treated people right,” Matlach said. “He was a wonderful friend who was also a hard-working family man.”
Matlach said when Green was in his 70s, he grabbed his 50-year old son by the ear and dragged him into the dealership after he discovered that his son was late on a car payment.
Matlach opened the car lot while stationed at George Air Force Base and serving in the Air National Guard. He added that opening the Victorville business was a continuation of a passion for selling cars.
“I opened my first used car lot at age 19 in St. Louis, right on 4955 Natural Bridge Avenue,” said Matlach as a BNSF train rolled past his lot. “Besides Victorville, I opened car lots in Fontana, San Bernardino and Austin, Texas.”
According to Matlach, Desert Motors once supplied vehicles for TV shows such as “77 Sunset Strip,” which aired in the 1950s and ‘60s, and for various movies such as “Angel Face,” starring Robert Mitchum and Jean Simmons.
“James Dean drove a really beat-up old Duesenberg that I restored,” Matlach said. “I think that old Duesenberg was used in the movie ‘Giant.’ And the Jaguar was used in the ‘Angel Face’ movie where the roadster goes off the cliff.”
According to Shihab, Matlach’s experience helped him to create a solid and trusted reputation, and helped him to achieve, at one time, the status of president of the California Independent Automobile Dealers Association and National Independent Automobile Dealers Association.
Shihab said his dream is to restore Desert Motors back to the prominence that it once held by transforming the lot back to the shining gem that once sparkled along Route 66.
“I couldn’t find a better place to fulfill that dream, and a better coach and mentor than Pat Matlach,” Shihab said. “He’s a man with great history behind him since 1951, and I would like to be the continuation of that legacy here at Desert Motors.”
By Rene Ray De La Cruz – VV Daily Press