Bob Kelley, Who Made the Kelley Blue Book an Authority on Cars, Dies at 96 - The World News

Bob Kelley, Who Made the Kelley Blue Book an Authority on Cars, Dies at 96

Bob Kelley, who turned the Kelley Blue Book, a price list published by his family’s used-car dealership, into one of the world’s leading authorities on cars, trucks, motorcycles and pretty much anything else that gets you from point A to point B, died on May 28 at his home in Indian Wells, Calif., east of Los Angeles. He was 96.

His son-in-law Charlie Vogelheim confirmed the death.

The Kelley Blue Book started in 1926 at the Kelley Kar Co., a Los Angeles dealership founded by Mr. Kelley’s father, Sidney, and an uncle, Leslie Kelley. As one of the biggest used-car dealerships in the region — and eventually the country — they had a constant need for new inventory, and the book originated as a simple list of prices that they were willing to pay for certain cars in certain conditions.

Mr. Kelley joined the company after the end of World War II, a prime time to get into the used-car business. The war had put an end to new-car production, and it would be several years before automakers could meet the demand.

He was initially in charge of both valuations on new inventory and compiling the book, and he brought a jeweler’s eye to the job. He studied all the factors that go into deciding a car’s road-worthiness and visual appeal — mileage, sound system, paint color — then developed a long list of data points that, combined, would produce a price.

“He had this habit of driving the oldest car on the lot home at night to understand why it wouldn’t sell,” Mr. Vogelheim, a former editor at Kelley Blue Book, said by phone.

Thanks to the accuracy of Mr. Kelley’s listings, and the market-setting power of his family’s business, other dealerships began using the list as well.

“Blue book value” has entered the lexicon as a synonym for top-notch, objective assessment of a used item, whether it’s covered by Mr. Kelley’s book or not. Credit…Unknown

The Kelleys closed their dealership in 1962 and sold the Kelley Blue Book to a fellow dealer in Los Angeles. By then Sidney and Leslie Kelley had largely left the business, but the new owners kept Bob Kelley and the rest of the team as employees.

Mr. Kelley worried at first that without the dealership, confidence in the book would diminish. Instead its popularity continued to grow, largely because of Mr. Kelley’s reputation for evaluating cars.

As he deepened the data underlying his valuations, the Kelley Blue Book became increasingly valuable beyond used-car dealerships. Courts, insurance companies and banks all used it to evaluate what for most people constituted one of the biggest assets they would ever own.

He also expanded the scope of the book, bringing in motorcycles, boats, RVs and trucks as well as luxury vehicles and imports. Eventually, an updated edition of the book appeared every other month, selling a total of a million copies a year.

Until the 1990s, the Kelley Blue Book was used almost exclusively by the used-car industry, not consumers. In 1995, Mr. Kelley pushed the book online, a move that expanded its use even further by making it easily available to car buyers. Today it evaluates new cars as well as used.

Other popular car-buying guides have come along, but the Kelley Blue Book remains the gold standard, and “blue book value” has entered the lexicon as a synonym for top-notch, objective assessment of a used item, whether it’s covered by Mr. Kelley’s book or not.

Robert Sidney Kelley was born on Dec. 11, 1927, in Los Angeles. His father and uncle were the sons of a Methodist preacher in Arkansas who had moved to California as young men seeking their fortune, and found it in cars.

His mother, Margaret (Miller) Kelley, managed the home.

Mr. Kelley began working at his family’s dealership when he was in high school. After graduation he enlisted in the Navy, and was accepted to naval aviator training at the University of New Mexico. The war ended before he saw combat, and he returned to work with his family.

Along with his son-in-law, he is survived by his wife, Wanda; his sister, Debi Sullivan; his sons, Michael and Mitchell; his daughters Christine Vogelheim, Nancy Bracken and Cynthia Shilling; 12 grandchildren; and 10 great-grandchildren.

In 1981 he brought on his son Michael to run the day-to-day operations at Kelley Blue Book, and retired in 2001. The company was sold to in 2010.

Though he was renowned for his data-driven insights into cars and their value, Mr. Kelley insisted that instinct and intuition still mattered greatly when trying to decide how much to ask or pay for a car.

Used-car pricing, he told The New York Times in 1996, “is both an art and a science.” He added, “If anyone does it just as a science, you’ll get fooled.”

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