Felix Chevrolet is not the largest automobile dealership in Los Angeles, but it’s certainly one of the most famous. Located in an older neighborhood near the Memorial Coliseum, the dealership is adjacent to the heavily traveled Harbor Freeway. Every day, thousands of commuters are treated to Felix’s neon sign, one of the most memorable landmarks in the city.
The company was founded in 1921 by Winslow B. Felix, who was a former salesman and used-car manager for Chevrolet Motor Company of California. Felix was an innovator, establishing practices such as a two-day trial purchase of new cars, and house calls by service technicians.
He also helped found the Greater Los Angeles Motorcar Dealers Association, which rated the performance of new cars and customer satisfaction—it was the forerunner of JD Powers and Associates. He helped organize the annual Los Angeles Auto Show, and sponsored car race events and baseball teams.
Felix befriended Pat Sullivan, an animation producer whose studio created Felix the Cat in 1919. Modeled after Charlie Chaplin, Felix the Cat appeared in popular printed comic strips, as well as short, animated movie features. The character was internationally famous, and his image was marketed on a wide range of merchandise.
In exchange for a new car, Sullivan allowed his close friend Winslow Felix to use Felix the Cat in advertising, beginning at the LA Auto Show in 1923. The advertising proved extremely successful, and Felix Chevrolet sales grew steadily as it moved to successively larger locations.
Unfortunately for Felix the Cat, Sullivan resisted converting his features from silent to talkies. Walt Disney’s new character Mickey Mouse had been featured with sound for several years, and the mouse eventually “killed” the cat in 1930. Tragically, Pat Sullivan died in 1933, prior to a planned revival.
The cat finally made his comeback in 1953, in cartoons produced for a new medium, television. Many of us are familiar with his new “friends”; the professor, his assistant Rock Bottom, and his nephew Poindexter. He also acquired a fabulous accessory, his magic bag of tricks. This is the version of the character appearing on the car dealership sign, which was designed by Wayne E. Heath and erected in 1959.
Winslow B. Felix became rich and a celebrity in Hollywood society. His relationship with a well-known silent-movie actress broke up his family, yet he never divorced. He died in a polo accident in 1936, at age 42. His widow, Ruth took over the business in spite of General Motors’ policy prohibiting female dealers.
The dealership in fact was run by company controller, Claude Craig. His death in 1955 prompted Ruth Felix to sell the business to used-car salesman Nickolas N. Shammas, who moved it to its current site in 1958. The building, renovated in 1946 by architect A. Godfrey Bailey had been Tupman Ford prior to Shammas’ purchase.
A recent movement to designate the showroom and sign as historic-cultural landmarks were opposed by Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa as well as the current owners of Felix Chevrolet. Landmark status would prohibit destruction or alteration of the structures, but may also inhibit area development and General Motors franchise initiatives. The designation was denied by the Los Angeles City Council in October 2007.
Fans of the sign needn’t worry, however. Darryl Holter of Felix Chevrolet has no plans to demolish or alter the sign. The wonderful three-sided sign will be maintained for the foreseeable future, greeting commuters with an unspoken, but enthusiastic “Righty-o!”