The Wheel Dealer

William O. McKay put Seattle on wheels, Seafair on the calendar, and romance under the hood.

By Michael Dobrin December 28, 2008 Published in the June 2008 issue of Seattle Met

THE AUTO AGE DIDN’T BEGIN in Seattle—but almost. In 1903, Henry Ford, the man who would put America behind the wheel, had just started building cars when he met a San Francisco machinery parts vendor named Billy Hughson at a bicycle show in Chicago. Hughson, impressed, agreed to buy the first batch of cars off Ford’s line for a grand $5,000, and got the rights to represent him in 11 Western states. Now Hughson needed someone to sell Ford cars in Seattle. He found a fellow native Californian named Bill McKay, a lumberman’s son who’d moved to Seattle in 1898.

“Wm. O. McKay,” as he spelled it, was then in his junior year at the University of Washington, but he dropped out to join the fledging automobile business. Burly and brash, he played football and ran track and field at UW, and proved an irresistible force on the sales floor as well. His drive and winning disposition made him one of Hughson’s top Northwest salesmen, both before the Great War—when he left to fight as a marine in France—and afterward.

Then McKay struck out on his own. This region already had two Ford dealerships, but they operated out of leased buildings. In 1922, McKay built his own at Westlake and Mercer, just four blocks from the Ford assembly complex at Fairview and Valley (now Shurgard). This cut transport costs and assured a “just-in-time” flow of Model Ts. He introduced precocious sales and service innovations: quick lube, nighttime service, a line of motoring accessories, and a 34-step prep process called “McKa-izing.”
Two years later McKay set out to emulate the grand auto emporiums of San Francisco and Los Angeles, and provide suitable quarters for Ford’s luxury Lincoln marque, with his new Pacific Building next door. He hired Harlan Thomas and Clyde Grainger, the architects of the Sorrento Hotel, to design a showroom opulent even by the standards of the day, with curved Philippine mahogany balustrades, vaulted ceilings, terrazzo tile, and an ornate white, blue, and gold terra-cotta exterior.

McKay’s salesmen would fire a rooftop cannon for each sale. They kept the cannon busy.

McKay was a tough taskmaster, but he had a showman’s flair. His salesmen had to report to daily sales meetings, but they would fire a cannon atop the roof when they made a sale during special promotions. That cannon must have been busy. In 1928 and 1929, as vendor and distributor, McKay moved 2,000 cars a month—about two-thirds of all the cars sold statewide.

During the Depression, McKay plunged into civic affairs as director of the Salvation Army, chairman of Seattle’s Community Fund, state chairman of the 1933 National Recovery Act campaign, and a member of the Chamber of Commerce. Then came the war years, when Seattle boomed and McKay’s take-charge style flourished. He headed the local recruiting district, numerous war-bond drives, and the Seattle Civilian War Commission, which oversaw civil defense and provided housing, entertainment, and other help for the troops. He reenlisted in the Marine Corps Reserves and lost his only son in combat in the Pacific.

McKay’s dealership is gone, but his buoyant spirit lives on in its buildings. They preserve the romance of a day when gas was cheap, roadways were unclogged, the greenhouse effect was esoteric science, and cars were all made in America. Vulcan Development, which bought the site in 2004, obtained city landmark designation for them. But even this may not save the buildings; redevelopment surges around them, and the settling Pacific Building is visibly separating from the McKay Building.
Bill McKay’s spirit also flowers each summer, when Seattleites take to the streets and lakeshore to celebrate, among other things, the thrill of conspicuous petroconsumption. In 1948, as McKay and his buddies took a spin around Lake Washington aboard his Elco cruiser Mercury, they hatched the idea of a festival honoring Seattle’s maritime heritage. Two years later, Seafair was born. In 1951, McKay presided over it as King Neptune II.

This Neptune died at sea and, appropriately, on the move. In 1956, McKay went to cheer the UW rowing crew at the Melbourne Olympics. He expired aboard ship on the way home and was buried on Fiji, where cars were few but the climate suited his sunny outlook.

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