How the “Briefcase Salesman” Became a Car Dealing King

Heralded as the “Auto Dealer Advocate” by Black Enterprise, Al Johnson broke barriers in the automobile industry, and readily paved a way for others to follow. As an entrepreneur and philanthropist, Johnson became the first African-American to be awarded a General Motors franchise and later became a leading independent Cadillac dealer.


To do so, he capitalized on the attempted limitations of a racialized society in becoming one of the top salesmen and dealers in the region. Additionally, his philanthropic efforts helped support Chicago’s most impoverished and even get President Obama elected into office.


Born February 23, 1929, in St. Louis as the son of a physician, he earned a bachelor of science in business administration from Lincoln University and a master of science in hospital administration from the University of Chicago. However, while working as an assistant administrator of Home G. Phillips Hospital, he began selling automobiles part-time to supplement his income.


Though hired by Nolting Oldsmobile in Kirkwood, Missouri, Johnson was not allowed to sell from the dealership due to racial discrimination. Alternatively, he had to sell door-to-door, becoming known as the  “briefcase salesman” that sold cars without having an actual, physical car to show.


While at Nolting, however, Johnson discovered an innovative way to increase his profits despite inherent racial discrimination. He secured a meeting with the dealership’s owner and propositioned a new way to sell cars:  the same way that dealers ordered them. Rather than the dealer making custom orders, the customer would be able to choose custom features – fabric color, trim, etc.


“The car would be built to the purchaser’s specifications.” Though Johnson’s potential sales were initially limited since restricted from the showroom floor, his briefcase model paid off: Johnson’s salary reached $60,000 in his first year (about $300,000 in today’s dollars). As a hospital administrator, he could only make up to $12,000/year even at the height of the profession.


Johnson would later move on to Brock Oldsmobile and continue to petition General Motors for the opportunity to franchise. After over 15 years and with demonstrated success as a “briefcase salesman,” the Chicago Oldsmobile Regional Sales Office finally granted the franchise on August 1, 1967: making Johnson the first African American to be awarded a new car franchise by General Motors (GM).


Johnson’s keen sales and business management skills successfully revitalized the failing franchise, leading to a subsequent offer to become a Cadillac dealer: officially franchising on June 1, 1971.


He’d eventually relocate the Cadillac dealership to a new, state-of-the-art facility of which he built and remained until selling the business in 1994. In the process, he’d also gain independent status from the Motor Holding Division of General Motors, as well as acquire a Lincoln/Mercury agency and other business enterprises including Stellar, Inc. and the Pyramid Trotting Association.


But Johnson was never only in the business for himself. His pioneering work, advocacy, and willingness to help those coming after him helped establish the first Minority Dealer Organization and Training Academy to increase the number and success of African American dealers. He was actively involved in the Political Action Conference of Illinois, a group supporting Black candidates for the Chicago mayoral seat.


In addition, after the election of Harold Washington as Chicago’s first Black mayor, Johnson served as a business development consultant for an annual salary of $1. In later years, he’d become the first large donor to Barack Obama’s campaign for the U.S. Senate, pledging $50,000 towards the historic occasion.


Johnson has received numerous awards in recognition of business achievements, philanthropic efforts, and civic impact. He was chairman emeritus of the University of Illinois Center for Urban Business, College for Business Administration; a board member of LaRabida Children’s Hospital, a member of the Executives Club of Chicago, and the General Motors Black Dealers Advisory Board. Johnson passed away in 2010 at the age of 89, but his legacy continues to live on.