Kelley Blue Book Origins

In my last post, I mentioned finding this Kelley Blue Book for March and April of 1969. That makes it a fairly old one, but KBB origins go back much further than that.

The Kelley Blue Book story begins with R. Leslie Kelley, an innovative entrepreneur who founded the Kelley Kar Company, a used car dealership, in 1918 Los Angeles. He was extremely good at it and eventually owned Les Kelley Ford, touted as the largest Ford dealership in the world. To acquire needed inventory in the early days, he would publish a list of cars he was willing to purchase and the prices he was willing to pay.  Others in the industry began using this list as a guide in their own endeavors, and Kelley soon realized there was money to be made providing this service to lenders and other dealers. The first Blue Book appeared in 1926, and Kelley’s brother, Buster Kelley, was eventually put in charge of publishing. Many early automobile advertisements, like these two from 1926, referenced the Blue Book:

Kelley also published a monthly report on conditions in the auto industry and even became involved in determining car values for tax assessment purposes for the State of California. This story appeared in 1928:

The name “Blue Book” was apparently influenced by the snooty social register of the same name. Kelley also sold what he termed “Blue Seal Automobiles,” as seen in this 1932 ad:

In this 1928 photo taken at the Kelley Kar Company on South Figueroa, you can see that the sign features the same blue and gold ribbon medallion that is used on the cover of the above Blue Book.

The purchaser in the above photo is Eddie Quillan, an actor who appeared on both the big and small screens from 1926-1987. You may recognize him from Mutiny on the Bounty or The Grapes of Wrath.

Another historical footnote: Kelley played a small role in one of the biggest crime stories of 1925-1926, the first federal agent killed in the line of duty. The agent was Edwin C. Shanahan of the FBI, and he was killed in Chicago by a prolific car thief and all-around bad guy named Martin J. Durkin when he attempted to arrest Durkin for transporting stolen automobiles in violation of the Dyer Act. After murdering Shanahan, Durkin fled to California and sold the car after changing the serial number on the engine and forging a pink slip. The car was then sold to Kelley, and the story made the papers when the original owner filed suit to get his car back. Hoover prioritized the pursuit of Durkin, and he was later apprehended and imprisoned.

Kelley eventually stopped dealing cars and focused only on the publishing service where later innovations included the effect of a car’s mileage on its value. It all started with used cars, however, and Kelley’s own description about the humble beginnings of his business appeared in a 1929 newspaper article:

And what a career it was.