McDowell’s Motor Mile made mobile memories

Car dealers once flourished all McDowell Road in Scottsdale, but after the Los Arcos Mall tanked, dealerships slowly started drifting away.

For nearly 50 years, Scottsdale’s McDowell Road area was the place to car shop.

From the mid-1960s through about 2010, some 32 brands of new and used cars were available from a host of locally-owned and operated car dealers.

Not only did the area nicknamed “Motor Mile” generate millions in annual economic impact and sales tax revenue, but the dealers themselves were pillars of the community, serving on key boards and supporting local charities and events.

Motor Mile continually evolved. Dealers retired or sold; many moved to other areas of greater Scottsdale as demographics and car-shopping trends changed.

But memories of Motor Mile linger in a city known for its auto-mania.

Cars first came to Scottsdale in the early 1900s, when the town was a dusty farming and ranching outpost with two paved streets and horses as the main mode of transportation.

Walter Smith was Scottsdale’s first car dealer, with a small showroom on Scottsdale road in the heart of the small downtown area.

The Petersons also operated a car dealership on Scottsdale road in the 1940s and 1950s. Other car dealers, like Woudenberg Pontiac (John Woudenberg served as Scottsdale mayor in 1964), were also located on the outskirts of the downtown area.

Gray Madison opened Paradise Motors on the southwest corner of Scottsdale and Camelback roads in the 1950s.

Seeking City Council approval to expand to the area between the Safari and Executive House Arizonian hotels on the east side of Scottsdale road, he was denied the zoning in 1963.

Scottsdale envisioned that area as a resort-residential corridor, not one dotted with car lots.

Undaunted, Madison took the bold move of relocating to McDowell road, which had acres of undeveloped land, new subdivisions to the north and south, a thriving Papago Plaza, and major employer Motorola down the street.

When he opened Madison Chevrolet in July 1964, he was the first major U.S. new car dealership in the McDowell corridor, joining a few, smaller import and used car sales operations as well as service stations, car parts businesses and a car wash operated by Russ Jackson — who would later cofound the Barrett-Jackson Classic Car Auction.

Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, more dealerships located to the McDowell area, such as Max of Switzerland, Bud Beck Pontiac, Bill Watkins Ford, Lane Auto Sales, Bud Brooks Cadillac, Pitre Buick, Western Honda, Jack Ross Lincoln Mercury, Charlie Rossie Ford, Scott Imports, Linda Brock Volkswagen and others.

They got a boost of traffic to the area when Los Arcos regional shopping mall opened on the southeast corner of Scottsdale and McDowell roads in November 1969.

In 1970, Phoenix auto dealer Ray Korte acquired Madison Chevrolet; he, his son Ray III and daughter Virginia became leaders among Scottsdale dealerships through the 1990s.

A rarity in the 1980s and 1990s, the McDowell corridor boasted two dealerships run by women — Linda Brock-Nelson’s BMW-VW-Oldsmobile-Jeep-Eagle Auto Mall and Korte Chevrolet (which featured Virginia in television ads promising deals “you can hang your hat on”).

Both Brock-Nelson and Virginia Korte were active in community leadership roles – Brock-Nelson on the Scottsdale school board, Scottsdale Symphony board and chair of the Arizona Dept. of Transportation board; Korte in Scottsdale Leadership, Maricopa Community College District board and chair of the McDowell Mountain Task Force/McDowell Sonoran Preserve Commission.

As dealerships began eyeing large tracts of land in the Scottsdale Airpark area in the late 1980s and 1990s, the McDowell area dealers, although competitors, sought to unify and brand the area for marketing and advertising purposes.

In 1996, they created a partnership that brought together 20 auto dealers under the “Motor Mile” umbrella.

They used a tag line “More Square Deals in One Square Mile,” and got City of Scottsdale approval to erect colorful signs identifying the area.

Changes in area commercial, residential and driving trends weren’t the only challenges faced by car dealers along McDowell’s Motor Mile.

In the late 1960s, there was a proposal to locate the Papago Freeway along McDowell Road, which would have displaced businesses and homes and separated the city’s southern neighborhoods from downtown and northern Scottsdale.

After years of studies and protests, the idea was quashed.

During the early 2000s, one by one, Motor Mile dealerships sold, closed and/or moved. The advent of the Loop 101 freeway gave regional car buyers access to new area where dealers were relocating, such as the Scottsdale Airpark.

A major blow to the McDowell Road area was the 1999 closing of Los Arcos Mall and the multi-year debate on redeveloping that prime corner.  SkySong — the ASU Scottsdale Center for Innovation opened its first buildings in 2007 on the former Los Arcos Mall corner, and a new era began for the McDowell Corridor.

Motor Mile’s car dealership sites morphed into upscale apartment and condo communities, restaurants, shopping and services.

Scottsdalians now fondly remember car shopping along Motor Mile, and car models long gone.

Scottsdale also remembers the community-minded dealers like Korte and Brock-Nelson, as well as Max Haechler (Swiss Consul, Scottsdale Sister Cities board member, Papago Rotary founder, Scottsdale Charro); Bud Brooks (Scottsdale Memorial Hospital Board of Trustees chair) and many others.