Generations of northeast Nebraskans remember Ray Lambrecht for the cars and trucks he sold.
A year ago, the rest of the world got to know the small-town Chevrolet dealer for the cars he kept.
The 96-year-old Lambrecht died last week at his home across the street from the Chevrolet dealership he owned and operated in Pierce for a half-century.
His death Sept. 22 came a few days shy of a year after car collectors and enthusiasts by the thousands turned tiny Pierce into the Detroit of the Plains for a once-in-a-lifetime auction of vintage Chevys from a time capsule of automotive history.
Lambrecht’s collection of nearly 500 vehicles — some of them never-driven, never-sold classics from the 1950s to 1970s — was auctioned off for $2.8 million during a two-day event televised by the History channel. Some of the vehicles still had the manufacturer’s sticker on a window and original oil in the crankcase.
Lambrecht didn’t plan to amass the collection of Apaches, BelAirs, Cameos, Corvairs, Corvettes, Impalas and other Chevy models. They were leftover inventory.
Lambrecht preferred to sell new cars and trucks for their safety and reliability. Trade-ins were parked on his farm near the edge of town and gradually grew into an overgrown and deteriorating collection.
It was an unintentional collection, said Minnesota auctioneer Yvette VanDerBrink, who sold off the vehicles in September 2013.
“He was just a businessman doing business,’’ she said Wednesday. “He had a unique philosophy. He never intended to sell used cars. He’d make you a deal you couldn’t refuse on a new car.’’
Jeannie Stillwell of Longwood, Florida, said her father’s success stemmed from a philosophy of not negotiating with customers. In 1959, he created the “It Will Pay to See Ray’’ motto for his dealership. Lambrecht would pick up a pencil, make a few calculations and give customers a take-it-or-leave-it price.
Lambrecht was born on a Pierce County farm. He served in the Army in the Aleutian Islands during World War II. After the war, he returned to Nebraska and married Mildred Heckman.
Lambrecht joined an uncle’s Chevrolet dealership in 1946 as a partner and designed and built the structure that housed the business until he shut the doors for the final time in 1996. He became the sole owner in 1948.
The Lambrechts worked six days a week for 50 years, never taking a day off for vacation or illness, Stillwell said.
Ray ran the dealership and handled all sales. He was one of GM’s top volume sellers and received many sales awards. Mildred did the accounting and made daily runs for parts. Their sole employee was a mechanic.
Before the auction, Lambrecht visited the 80-acre site on the edge of town where the vehicles were lined up.
“He had no idea there were that many,’’ VanDerBrink said.
The auction attracted an estimated 25,000 people. Bidders came from around the world and joined in online.
VanDerBrink regularly had questions for Lambrecht about titles or details about a vehicle. Sometimes he didn’t have an answer; most of the time he did.
“I asked him how he got the title to a ’50 Mercury. He remembered everything,’’ VanDerBrink said. “Then we couldn’t find the keys to the Silver Anniversary Corvette. No one knew where they were. Then he remembered they were on top of the refrigerator.’’
The Lambrechts didn’t attend the auction. They stayed home and watched it on television.
“They were just in awe,’’ VanDerBrink said.
In addition to his wife and daughter, Lambrecht’s survivors include son Mark of Omaha and granddaughters Laura Lambrecht of San Francisco, Jenna Lambrecht of Omaha and Kara Lambrecht of Berlin, Germany.
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