The day he turned 15, Tim Urness was camped out in front of the Department of Motor Vehicles to get his learner’s permit because he had been waiting all his life to drive, at least legally.
A year later, he was proud to become one of the first teens that DMV employee Dorothy Gray passed on the first drive test. She was renowned for flunking almost everyone, but Tim had figured out the secret to success.
He came to a complete stop at the abandoned train tracks downtown, even though no engine would be coming down the line.
“I even looked both ways,” he remembers.
His first car was a 1965 Plymouth Valiant with an eight-track stereo and he still collects classic cars, working to restore them when he has time.
So, it seems logical that Tim would be one of the third-generation owners of a car dealership. C.H. Urness Motors in The Dalles, a business started by his grandfather, known to the family as “pop-pop” in 1946.
The first cars on the lot were Studebakers, but the dealership at 505 Cherry Heights Road now sells a large inventory of Chrysler, Jeep, Dodge and Ram trucks, cars and SUVS.
Tim’s brother, Mike, 10 years his junior, is also an owner.
“I worked in Portland and Seattle for a couple of years before I came back to join the family business,” said Mike.
The firm’s financial controller and third owner is Kathy Udhalde, whose father, Jerry Urness, ran the dealership with Mike and Tim’s father, Ed. Their uncle, C.R. Urness, was also a part of the enterprise for many years.
“Their father begged me to come, he said ‘Somebody has to keep an eye on those boys,’” said Kathy.
“When there’s two brothers working together, there needs to be a voice of reason,” agreed Mike.
His son, Charlie Urness, is the fourth generation to join the family business, and he is the parts manager.
The camaraderie of the family is great, said Tim, they even still take vacations together occasionally. Great, that is until Civil War time, when some of the family back the Ducks. He and Mike both graduated from Oregon State University and are big Beavers supporters.
“During the Civil War it’s a house divided,” said Tim.
All three new owners took the reins in 1999 when the new facilities were constructed, which Tim said was a good time to make a generational shift.
“We didn’t build an office for dad,” he said.
The Urness family’s good-natured ribbing spills into the showroom where they trade jabs with customers and catch up on local news.
It is the relationships they have formed that keep people coming back to the dealership, a place they know and trust, said Tim.
“Many of our clients are also good friends,” he said.
“People don’t fear coming into our dealership,”added Mike. All kidding aside, he and Tim have carried on the tradition of making the buying experience friendly for customers by having one person who greets them, works out a deal and then delivers the vehicle.
“We’ve done that for 70 years,” said Tim.
All employees go through regular training to get up to speed on the latest in financing and service needs, so they are knowledgeable about whatever questions customers may have.
“We continue to do business the way our fathers did,” said Kathy.
It is a source of pride to the family to carry on the philanthropy of their forebears. The dealership contributes to youth sports and other activities and programs in all five counties of the Mid-Columbia region.
“I think our customers really appreciate that, and it’s a way to show that we appreciate them,” said Mike.
For 45 years, Urness supported the Fort Dalles Rodeo and Mike still does business with a lot of the professional cowboys he met over the years.
“I don’t ask them for endorsements, I just want to make them a good deal,” he said.
Trends have changed in the way cars are sold and serviced in the past couple of decades, said Tim. Two of the biggest changes are the increase in rules and regulations that govern operations, and the younger generation not having the same passion for cars as their parents and grandparents.
“I think some of that is because you used to be able to work on your own car, get the parts from a wrecking yard, and take pride that you did it yourself, but now everything is computerized and you really can’t do that anymore,” he said.
Mike added: “Plus, owning a car today is a lot more expensive than it used to be.”
Over the years there have been some strange situations with clients, but one of the strangest Tim can remember was closing a deal with a woman, and then getting a surprise when he opened the trunk of her old car to transfer items into the new one.
“It was filled with vertically stacked envelopes full of money,” he said. “As we were moving it, she told us that she didn’t trust the bank or the guy who was living with her, so she just carried cash around.”
Whatever comes their way, the Urness family plans to handle it with the same sense of humor that makes their dealership a comfortable place to visit.
C.H. Urness Motors is open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and closed Sunday. For more information, call 541-296-2284.