Mel Farr, Former NFL Running Back and Business Titan, Dies at 70

Top BE 100s entrepreneur was an auto industry leader and minority dealer advocate

Mel Farr Automotive

Mel Farr (Image: File)

Mel Farr, a former Detroit Lions running back and business titan, died at his home Aug. 3, according to reports.The superstar, both in sports and business, was 70.

Farr, who was a Rookie of the Year in 1967, played seven seasons with the Lions from 1967-73. He was selected to the Pro Bowl twice and created a lucrative post-NFL career as an auto industry leader, dominating Black Enterprise’s list of top auto dealers on the BE 100s list. Cook-Farr Ford debuted on the list in 1977 at No. 18, with sales of $9.8 billion. “This is the greatest thing that could happen to me as a businessman,” he said later of the honor. “Realizing that back in 1978 when Black Enterprise had its first ever BE 100 group assembled at the White House, I was the youngest businessman in the group at 33, and the oldest was 82. I knew at the time I wanted to be No. 1, and I always felt that because of my youth, it was obtainable.”

By the late ’90s, Cook-Farr would later expand to become Mel Farr Automotive Group, becoming the nation’s largest black-owned auto dealership and the 33rd largest in the U.S.. At the time, the company earned more than a half-billion dollars in revenues.

Farr, a Beaumont, Texas native, was a first-round pick out of UCLA and a powerhouse runner in the NFL, leading the Lions in rushing and receiving as a rookie and scoring a team-high nine touchdowns in the team’s playoff season on 1970. Shoulder and knee injuries would lead him to retire.

According to reports, he was able to leverage a longstanding association with Ford—as the family owned the Lions since 1964—to learn the auto business.  He worked for Ford during the off seasons and gained training to take over his first dealership that led to an empire. “You see, most entrepreneurs want to jump into a new business before they really spend time learning it. I received a seven-year apprenticeship before I got my own dealership. I learned all of the basics … I got an overview of what it takes to make a dealership work,” he told Derek T. Dingle, author of Black Enterprise Titans of The B.E. 100s, published in 1999.

With savvy, creative marketing and innovative salesmanship, the enterprising auto industry leader made the name “Mel Farr Superstar” famous, adding celebrities including comedian Sinbad, entertainers Tito and Jermaine Jackson and NFL stars in the ads.

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He was his company’s spokesperson, appearing in early commercials wearing a superhero cape and tailored suit.

Reports also indicate Farr’s smart and persistent lobbying in the 1970s led to President Jimmy Carter’s approval for low-interest federal loans to keep his dealership out of bankruptcy and financing from Ford.

Though his empire eventually crumbled in the early 2000s after consumer lawsuits, a slumping economy and financial challenges, Farr leaves a legacy of innovation, pioneering leadership and advocacy. A husband and father of three, he provided a platform for minority dealer success and resources, co-founding the Minority Ford Lincoln Mercury Dealers Association, now the Ford Motor Minority Dealers Association.

The entire Lions family is saddened by the passing of Mel Farr,” Lions president Tom Lewand said in a statement Tuesday. “As both a player and a businessman, Mel was blessed with many talents and a personality to match. His energetic presence in Detroit, both on the field during his playing career and off the field for decades after, was unique and unmistakable.”

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