Central Oldsmobile opens at 1017 Olive Way in downtown Seattle on November 15, 1937.

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 11/06/2018
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20660

On November 15, 1937, Seattle's newest Oldsmobile dealer, Central Oldsmobile, Inc., opens its doors to the public at 1017 Olive Way. The dealership is owned by veteran car dealer John Riach (1895-1981). Riach started in the automotive business in 1919 after immigrating to Seattle from Glasgow, Scotland, by way of Victoria, British Columbia. He and then his son Donald Riach (1924-1997) will sell Oldsmobiles at 1017 Olive Way for nearly half a century, also adding a Honda dealership in 1970. The Honda dealership, but not the land, will be sold in 1986 to new owners who rename it Honda of Seattle, remodel the building's interior, and operate there another two decades. In 2014, the property, held in a family trust by heirs of John Riach, will be sold to the Washington State Convention Center, and Honda of Seattle will move the following year.

Airy and Light-Filled

The new Central Oldsmobile dealership on Olive Way at the north end of downtown Seattle occupied an extensively remodeled building constructed in Mediterranean Revival style, dating from 1930, which had housed a grocery store, garment cleaner, and service garage. The remodeled and expanded building occupied three floors and measured 120 feet by 180 feet. The architect was Seattle-born J. Lister Holmes (1891-1986), perhaps best known for his design of the Washington State Pavilion for the 1939 World's Fair in New York City.

Holmes's design was light-filled and spacious with large showroom windows. Heavy timbers that supported the construction were left exposed, and wood-plank floors were used throughout. In a Seattle Times article, Central Oldsmobile general manager Ralph H. Norbom (1893-1978) described the building:

"Our downtown home for Oldsmobiles occupies three full floors, 120 by 180 feet, for a total of nearly 65,000 square feet of floor space. Large, light and conveniently arranged rooms for the showing of the 1938 Oldsmobile Six and Eight is a feature of which we are justly proud. Also spacious rooms for the proper display of our safety tested and guaranteed used cars has been arranged. A downstairs one-stop service department that makes entering and leaving easy will please our customers I am sure. In another part of this large Oldsmobile home is a service department manned only by factory-trained workmen ... No job will be too small or too large to receive our most careful attention ... Parking ... is plentiful" ("Public Invited ...")

The local Oldsmobile management team traveled around the country to study other dealerships and service departments before settling on final design plans, according to an ad for the new dealership:

"The best features of the many places they visited have been incorporated in their new three-story building which is conveniently located to Seattle's downtown retail shopping area and business center. They have spared no expense in giving Seattle one of the finest sales and service establishments in the North West" (Announcing the Opening ...")

The ad also promoted a selection of services and features important to customers, from "Plenty of Parking Space" to "Major Overhauls -- Body Work, Fender Work, Radio Repair and Installation -- Using Latest, Most Efficient Precision Instruments and Tools" ("Announcing the Opening ...").

Grady Gamble, Oldsmobile's Northwest zone manager, praised the newly opened dealership, saying it was the "most modern sales and service store ... Not one piece of equipment has been installed that was not the latest and most efficient design available ... I want to cordially invite every motorist to visit this new, modern motor car home and inspect what I feel is a real contribution to Seattle's auto row" ("Factory Head Praises Store").

"Favors Promised for All"

Central Oldsmobile's opening was extensively covered by the media. The day before the November 15, 1937, opening, The Seattle Times devoted more than a full page to the new dealership, with nine short feature stories. There were photos of the firm's managers and sales team, short descriptions of key staff, and more than a dozen small congratulatory display ads taken out by local businesses, including Triangle Automotive Parts Co. and the Overhead Door Co. The centerpiece of the page was a large display ad (roughly two thirds of the page) highlighting the new building's features and services.

The dealership hosted a gala open house, inviting the public to stop by any evening during the week of November 15. Free entertainment for both young and old was promised:

"New talking films have been shipped here to give visitors real enjoyment ... The films include not only manufacturing stories but comedy films as well, Ralph Norbom reports. Favors for the youngsters, when accompanied by their parents, are also on the list" ("Favors Promised for All Visitors").

Ralph H. Norbom, described in the Times coverage as "well known on Seattle's auto row and with fourteen years of automobile-selling experience back of him" ("Public Invited ..."), had been appointed manager of the new dealership just a week earlier. A longtime automotive enthusiast, Norbom started his career selling cars in 1924. For a time, he also ran his own used-car business. Just a few years later, in 1940, Norbom left Central Olds to become the used-car manager at Anderson Buick, and he continued his affiliation with Buick for more than a decade. He died in 1978 at the age of 85.

Norbom evidently liked a fast car. In 1914, the young Norbom was fined $25 for a speeding violation. His name appeared in the Times as a "traffic law violator," along with 11 other men who committed traffic infractions. The fine was paid "to the municipal treasury through the police courts" ("Traffic Law Violators ...").

A Veteran Staff

The Seattle Times opening-day coverage spotlighted Central Oldsmobile's managerial and sales team: Norbom "has surrounded himself with a staff of sales and service men that he feels are very well qualified to render the type of service comparable to the facilities offered" ("Public Invited ...").

The service manager was William E. "Bill" Walker, who had more than 16 years' experience in the auto industry. Bob Hatten (also spelled Hatton), the accessory manager, promised customers he would stock a variety of accessories beyond what was available from the Oldsmobile factory. Allison Brooks was hired as office manager. Norbom was quoted as saying, "Allison Brooks needs little or no introduction to Seattle motorists. His pleasing personality and enviable reputation make him the ideal manager for our general office" ("Allison Brooks ..."). The managerial team was rounded out by J. J. "Jim" Locatelli, who was responsible for the parts department.

Owner John Riach

Central Oldsmobile was founded by John Riach, who was then sales manager at Seattle's existing Olds franchise, Tyson Oldsmobile at 12th Avenue and East Pine Street. Riach was a shrewd businessman and a gifted salesman. He was born in Glasgow, where he worked on a farm as a teenager. At 17, he immigrated with his parents to Victoria. After serving in World War I with the Canadian army, Riach moved to Seattle and was hired in 1919 at the Willys-Overland Company. In 1920, it became Tyson Oldsmobile and Riach rose from being bookkeeper to sales manager and eventually to vice president and then part-owner. In 1980, a year before his death, a Seattle Times profile of Riach and his family businesses noted:

"The Seattle area has seen maybe a couple of dozen auto dealerships come and go over the years since John Riach came on the scene in 1919, but Riach's operations have ridden the dips and bumps of six decades and are still going strong ... He founded Central Oldsmobile at Olive Way and Boren Avenue in the tough depression days of 1937" ("Downtown, Family-Owned ...").

When his partner at Tyson Oldsmobile, Charlie (also spelled Charley) Tyson, died in December 1941, Riach bought out his share. In early 1942, he renamed the company Riach Oldsmobile. In 1964, Riach consolidated both Oldsmobile dealerships at the Olive and Boren campus, renaming the business Riach-Central Oldsmobile. He continued to expand, adding several nearby properties for used-car sales and parking. A Honda franchise was added in 1970 under the name Riach-Central Honda.

Riach's son, John Donald Riach, joined the family business in 1949 after graduating from the University of Washington with a business degree. He rose to become president and general manager. John Riach died on October 6, 1981, at the age of 86, and son Donald Riach passed away on March 24, 1997, at the age of 72.

In 1986, the Honda franchise, but not the property, was bought by Brad M. Miller and Thomas Nicholson who renamed it Honda of Seattle. They remodeled the interior of 1017 Olive Way, where the Honda showroom, offices, and parts and service departments were located. In 2014, a Riach family trust sold the property for $56.5 million to the Washington State Convention Center for an expansion project. The following year, Honda of Seattle left downtown Seattle and moved into a larger space in the SoDo area south of the downtown core.


"Traffic Law Violators Fined in Police Court," The Seattle Times, October 14, 1914, p. 22; "Favors Promised for All Visitors," Ibid., November 14, 1937, p. 19; "Factory Head Praises Store," Ibid., November 14, 1937, p. 19; "Allison Brooks is Office Head," Ibid., November 14, 1937, p. 19; "Announcing the Opening of Central Oldsmobile, Inc." (advertisement), Ibid., November 14, 1937, p. 19; "Public Invited to Visit Store," Ibid., November 14, 1937, p. 20; "Downtown, Family-Owned Dealership Rides Crunches," Ibid., August 9, 1980, p. C-1; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, " Riach Honda Building (Seattle)" (by Rita Cipalla), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed November 6, 2018).

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