An auto dealer facade that says "Dodge, Jeep, Ram, McKevitt"
The owners of McKevitt Volvo turned it into a Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram dealership in 2014 and renovated the building. Credit: Joanne Furio

H. W. McKevitt — a company that started off selling piston rings in Oakland in 1925 before morphing into two car dealerships in Berkeley, including the nation’s longest continuing Volvo dealership in the U.S. — is not going to make it to its centennial. The company’s latest incarnation in Berkeley, McKevitt Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram, will close at the end of the business day on Friday, June 30, along with McKevitt’s Fiat franchise. 

The dealership’s general manager, Yunuss Isaaq, notified customers via email of the closing on June 8. In December, McKevitt closed its Alfa Romeo dealership. Both showrooms, in separate buildings at 2700 Shattuck Ave., are joined by an outdoor lot, all totalling a little over an acre. 

The dealerships’ owners are U.S. Autogroup, a family business based in Birmingham, Michigan, with five franchises around the country, including a McKevitt Volvo dealership in San Leandro. The Lavery family has owned car dealerships in Berkeley since 1984. 

“To have to close the doors in Berkeley is heart wrenching,” said Shane Lavery, president of U.S. Autogroup, who runs the business with his father, Fred.

An old black-and-white photo of a very wide four-lane road lined with auto businesses
This 1971 photo depicts Shattuck, north from Derby and five car businesses: Oliver Volkswagen, 2567 Shattuck; Berkeley Automotive Center, 2619 Shattuck; Berkeley Datsun, 2617 Shattuck; McKevitt Volvo, 2611 Shattuck; and Fidelity Oldsmobile, 2600 Shattuck. Courtesy: Berkeley Historical Society

“I grew up at that store. We have a very personal connection to the city. To have spent that much time in one place and have to end it was incredibly difficult for myself and my father,” he said. “Like many small businesses, we’ve had successes and failures over that period of time. We’ve been trying to run the store in Berkeley and make money. Unfortunately, the business was struggling and wasn’t going to survive and we therefore made a decision to shut down.”

The closings reflect the changes in the global car marketplace that include international mergers and fast-moving trends in which wildly successful models become out of fashion within a decade. 

The loss of the dealerships also reflect a changing downtown Berkeley, where rising property values, especially for a business that demands so much horizontal space, can impact the bottom line. (The Laverys do not own the property, so they pay rent as well as property taxes — both of which have grown as the lot’s ownership has turned over.) 

Only two car companies — Toyota of Berkeley and Berkeley Honda — will remain on a stretch of Shattuck Avenue that boasted a dozen new car dealerships in its mid-century heyday. 

From pistons rings to Plymouths

McKevitt has been the name of several auto businesses since 1925, when Harold W. McKevitt was listed in a city directory as being part of Moor-McKevitt Co., at 3109 Adeline St., Oakland, selling piston rings. In 1926 McKevitt started selling Chrysler automobiles, at one point located at 2305 Shattuck Ave. Plymouth became part of Chrysler in 1928. 

“It made sense that McKevitt went into the car-selling business in the 1920s,” said Berkeley historian Charles M. Wollenberg, author of Berkeley: A City in History. “The market expanded incredibly in that decade.” In 1917 there were just 700,000 cars and trucks in the whole United States, Wollenberg said. By 1930 there were 2 million cars in California alone. 

By 1954, H.W. McKevitt Company Auto Repairing is listed as being at 2034 Haste St. That same year, 12 new car dealerships were listed on Shattuck Avenue, including those that sold De Sotos and Packards. 

George O. Petty, 84, a board member and secretary of the Berkeley Historical Society who’s lived in Berkeley since 1947, described that downtown strip of Shattuck Avenue, from Durant Avenue to Derby, as “Berkeley’s auto row.” 

Volvo was ‘the most Berkeley car ever’ in its heyday

McKevitt started selling Volvos in 1956, becoming one of the earliest Volvo franchises in the U.S.

By the 1970s, McKevitt Volvo was operating out of 2611 Shattuck Ave., a few doors down from the Berkeley Automotive Center, the faded sign of which is barely readable at the corner of Shattuck Avenue and Carleton Street. Several addresses in that building and an adjoining lot have been vacant for years. 

Old industrial building behind a fence. An old sign says "WICKS FRIGIDAIRE TV APPLIANCES SALES SERVICE"
The former McKevitt Volvo franchise at 2611 Shattuck Ave. Credit: Joanne Furio
A two-story industrial building with a tall protuberance on which you can make out the letters of "Berkeley Automotive Center"
The Berkeley Automotive Center, which in the 1970s included a McKevitt Volvo showroom, on Shattuck Avenue and Carleton Street. Credit: Joanne Furio

McKevitt Volvo ran ads from 1973 to 1976 in the Berkeley Gazette, boasting that it was “the oldest U.S. dealer” and also “the East Bay’s largest volume dealer.” 

Old newspaper clipping with photo at the top of McKevitt outside an auto dealership
An August 8, 1977 article and photo from the Berkeley Gazette depicting Harold Walker McKevitt, right, who started a Volvo franchise in 1956. Credit:

An Aug. 11, 1977, article in the Gazette described the Swedish automaker honoring the dealership “among top-ranked American Volvo automobile dealers” for “exceeding projected sales objectives. A photo shows “Mr. H. Walker McKevitt, of H.W. McKevitt Co., Inc.” with a representative from Volvo of America’s Western Division. 

McKevitt sold the Volvo dealership to the Laverys in 1984. At the time, it had already been  operating out of 2700 Shattuck Ave. In 2006, it was commemorated for having been in business for 50 years. 

In the 1990s, the McKevitt dealership added Nissan to its brand lineup in the smaller building at 2700 Shattuck Ave., but terminated that business in 2008. The Laverys opened a Fiat franchise in that building in 2011. At the time, Shane Lavery told Berkeleyside that he was confident that the compact and gas-efficient Fiat 500 would appeal to Berkeley drivers.

While Berkeley residents considered the classic 1970s and ’80s Volvo station wagon, “the most Berkeley car ever,” according to a 2011 Berkeleyside poll, by the second decade of the 21st century, the brand’s popularity here had waned. 

With flagging sales in the East Bay, and an Oakland Volvo dealer ready to call it quits, the Laverys bought Continental Volvo in Oakland and relocated it to San Leandro in 2014. At the same time, the Laverys considered moving their Berkeley Volvo dealership to Emeryville, which they considered an “up-and-coming area,” with a recently built commercial hub and new housing.

“We ended up not doing so because of the cost of relocation and the brand itself going through some hard times,” Shane Lavery said. “Volvo — just like all things in all businesses — tends to go in cyclical patterns. Because of the financial crisis of the late ’80s combined with Volvos’ issues with the brand itself, Volvo began to not do as well in North America.”

High hopes for Chrysler

By the time the Laverys decided to close the Berkeley Volvo franchise in 2014, it was only selling about 120 to 150 Volvos a year, while Chrysler sales were booming in northern California, Fred Lavery told Berkeleyside in 2014. That year, Jeep’s sales rose 41% in the  U.S. and sold a million cars in China, according to Reuters.

So the Laverys turned the former Volvo showroom into a CDJR franchise in 2014. When it was built in 1948, the building had been home to the Forman Motor Company Chrysler Plymouth dealership. To mark the new franchise, the Laverys had the showroom renovated and updated the facade. 

A full page newspaper ad for the Forman Motor Co. that reads "Announcing ... The Completion of our new showroom"
Forman Motor Co.’s brand new Chrysler Plymouth showroom in 1948 that would become home to Chrysler brands in 2014. Courtesy: Berkeley Architectural Heritage Association

But even the Chrysler boom would peter out. Chrysler, which had been bought by Fiat in 2014, saw its U.S. sales drop 17% by 2020, worse than the 15% drop other automakers experienced during the pandemic. In 2021, Fiat Chrysler then became part of the Amsterdam-based Stellantis, which includes Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep, Ram, Alfa Romeo and Fiat, all of which were sold by the McKevitt dealerships. 

“The market changes,” said Brian Maas, president of the California New Car Dealership Association in Sacramento, whose 1,250 members across the state include the McKevitt franchises. “A Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram store might have made sense at one point. But the owners may have decided that the customer base that they’re serving maybe isn’t as interested in those types of vehicles now.”

The Laverys gave the Alfa Romeo franchise back to Stellantis in December.

“That brand, unfortunately, hasn’t done well in the Bay Area,” Shane Lavery said. “More than one store has closed in the region.”

The Fiat franchise, meanwhile, which had been in the same building, continued, but will close on Friday, too. 

“Stellantis has not put much focus on that brand for a long time. It still exists but is really not supported. There used to be Fiat dealers in Marin, San Francisco, Fremont, San Jose and more on the peninsula. They’re all gone,” Shane Lavery said. “They’re hardly making any cars for the U.S. market. We need to have things to sell in order for our business to be viable.”

The Berkeley Historical Society’s Petty, who owns an electric Fiat he maintained at the Berkeley dealership (though he bought it elsewhere), now wonders where he can take his car.

About 20 employees affected

A "Berkeley McKevitt Nissan Volvo" frame against a white background
A license plate frame from McKevitt’s long-running Volvo dealership. Courtesy: Berkeley Historical Society

For Shane Lavery, one of the worst aspects of “closing the store,” was giving the 20 or so employees — all of whom he knows by name — 30 days’ notice of the closing. A couple of them have been offered work at other Lavery dealerships, but the rest are searching for new jobs.

“In every facet of our industry, people are hiring,” he said. “Technicians are drastically in demand. My hope is that they will find something quick.”

“We loved doing business here in Berkeley,” said a member of the sales staff. “We wish this wasn’t happening, of course.”

“Having to tell them was one of the more difficult things I’ve ever done in my life,” Shane Lavery said. “This is not easy. There’s nothing simple about it. We’ve come to a point where this was inevitable.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of cars and trucks in the U.S. in 1917. There were 700,000‚ not 700, according to historian Charles M. Wollenberg.

Joanne Furio is a longtime journalist and writer of creative nonfiction. Originally from New York, she has been a staff writer, an editor and a freelance magazine writer. More recently, she was a contributing...