Jim Marsh

The iconic car dealer discusses his gambles, fixing Nevada and never getting over the barrel

When things were so bad in Seattle in 1971 that billboards said “Will the last person to leave Seattle please turn out the lights?” the savvy Jim Marsh packed up his belongings and headed to Las Vegas, where he reopened an AMC Jeep dealership at Fremont and 17th streets that the previous owners had driven into the ground. From there, Marsh went on to become a Las Vegas legend, showcasing his dry humor both on the lot and in TV ads that he wrote himself. As his public presence grew, he also became a sharp voice in Nevada’s political discourse.

Marsh’s success also helped him build a far-flung real estate portfolio that includes casinos from the Skyline on Boulder Highway to the Santa Fe Saloon and Motel in Goldfield. Along the way, he made rural Nevada a central part of his life: If you head up to Tonopah on a holiday, you may see him participating in a parade. Or maybe you’ll catch him wandering through the desert, finding some fresh air and open space far from Vegas. Marsh also owns a cabin in the old mining town of Belmont, about 265 miles north of Las Vegas. And in 2001, he built a small, non-denominational church there, on a hill overlooking the valley.

It hasn’t all been smooth cruising: Marsh lost his Chrysler dealership two years ago during the company’s post-crash reorganization, but he won his arbitration and may reopen the dealership. Meanwhile, the septuagenarian remains at the wheel at Jim Marsh Automotive, a Mitsubishi, Suzuki and Kia dealership in the northwest Valley.

When you arrived here in ’71, was there a sign that a defunct AMC dealership was going to work?

I was driving down Main Street while contemplating the idea of buying the dealership. I was pulled over for having out-of-state plates, and the cop wanted to know why I was in Las Vegas. I told him I was buying the dealership. The cop shook his head, gave me back my driver’s license and said, “Good luck. You’re going to need it.”

Have all the changes in Las Vegas begun to wear thin for you? Do you prefer the wide open spaces of Nevada?

I like the history of Nevada. There is a ton of history that I really enjoy. I have a cabin in Belmont at about 7,600 feet, and it’s a delightful way to get out of the heat. I have a few drinks and ride my ATV. However, I can’t say that there’s anything about the changes in Las Vegas that really bug me. I get frustrated with the traffic and the growth, but Las Vegas remains a good town. It never seems to give up.

You’ve invested far and wide in remote Nevada properties, including the Longstreet Inn and Casino in Amargosa Valley north of Las Vegas. Why did you build the Longstreet?

Brain damage is probably the best description. I was counting on a couple of developments including the proximity to California along with the fact that Yucca Mountain was going to be built. Then Yucca went by the wayside, and the Longstreet has been marginal at best—although it’s doing better now. I think we are probably leaner and meaner after curtailing our expenses. The revenues have not increased, but our expenses are 50 percent what they were a couple of years ago.

When did you become active in politics?

I actually ran for state Assembly in 1976 and got beat by Ian Ross when there were no Republicans elected in Clark County. It’s an inherited trait since my grandfather was a Democratic National Committeeman in Colorado and ran for the U.S. Senate in 1942. I might just run again.

Can Nevada recover from its current economic mess?

We can get out of it, but it’s going to take some hard choices. For example, I’m not sure why we need an agricultural department in Nevada. I think we can consolidate many of our departments to eliminate some of the duplication of work. If you ever try to find a state employee on a holiday weekend or on a Friday, good luck. Our government employees need to take some responsibility and they need to be accountable to the taxpayers of Nevada.

What is it about the car business that keeps you going?

I love it when you’re selling cars. When you’re busy selling cars, it’s the most enjoyable job in the world but when you’re not, it’s also the most miserable.

What was your most memorable commercial?

The one with me and the barrel, about 25 years ago. I was audited by the IRS at the time and we had a series of commercials saying how we needed to sell cars to pay the bills. At the end of the commercial, I was standing there in a barrel playing up the fact that the IRS had taken everything except the barrel that covered my body. To this day, the old-timers are reminding me about that commercial.

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