Prime Motor Group founder Ira Rosenberg, a tireless salesman and entrepreneur who loved people and never took “no” for an answer, died surrounded by his family Thursday.

A straight-talking, wisecracking veteran of the car sales industry, Rosenberg leaves behind a legacy that includes a multistate auto dealership chain with 1,800 employees. After nearly six decades working for and then owning dealerships, Rosenberg announced his retirement from the Saco-based business in October 2017 at 80 years old.

His son, David Rosenberg, now heads the business as CEO of Prime, which operates 30 dealerships in Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. David Rosenberg posted a notice about his father’s death Thursday on support group and fundraising website CaringBridge.

“I’m sorry to report that my dad passed away peacefully in his sleep, while in the company of his family, at 3:45 a.m. this morning,” David Rosenberg wrote.

Ira Rosenberg began his career in 1960, changing tires in a used-car lot at a Chevrolet dealership in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After growing up in a poor family and not doing well as a student in school, he saw the auto sales and service industry as his ticket to the financial success he always dreamed about.

But it would take a few years before Rosenberg would begin to realize that dream. He left his first dealership job, got married, became a traveling salesman, and had a son, David, before returning to work for another dealership – this time in the sales department.

“The minute I sold my first car, I knew that it was for me. I loved it,” Rosenberg told the Portland Press Herald in a 2017 interview. “The first car was a Chevrolet, a 1970 Chevrolet Impala coupe, turquoise bottom, white painted roof. In those days we had painted roofs.”

Rosenberg worked the showroom floor at Sea Crest Cadillac in Lynn, Massachusetts, quickly becoming one of the top salesmen in the region. In 1975, he bought his first Toyota dealership in Danvers, Massachusetts. Many more acquisitions would follow.

Known at the time as Ira Motor Group, the dealership chain became well-known in Massachusetts throughout the 1980s with its signature slogan, “Ira, Ira! Zero down at Ira!” Rosenberg made himself the public face of the business, working alongside sales staff and appearing in TV commercials.

“I used myself as a brand. I was the brand,” Rosenberg said in 2017. “So when people would recognize me and come over and talk to me, I used to give my card out with my personal telephone to anybody who I could, because I wanted them to talk to me. I’m completely different from a lot of other dealers. A lot of dealers don’t like to go on the floor, and that’s not me.”

While all this was going on, Rosenberg’s son David took an interest in the business, graduated from college, joined his father’s company, left temporarily to earn a Master’s of Business Administration degree from Columbia University, and then returned to the company to take on a leadership role.

The father-and-son team led the company through greater changes, including further expansion and a decision in 1999 to allow Ira Motor Group to be acquired by Group 1 Automotive, a publicly traded company based in Houston.

At that point Ira Rosenberg decided to retire, but it didn’t last. According to company lore, at one point Rosenberg told his wife, Judy, that if he couldn’t go back to work he would need to get a lobotomy.

Eventually Rosenberg would decide to get back into the automotive industry, which also marked his entry into Maine. In the mid-2000s, he purchased three car dealerships in the state, forming the beginning of Prime Motor Group.

David was an investor in the new company but soon got involved in his own business in 2007 by purchasing with a partner the former Clair Auto Group, which operated nine dealerships in Maine, Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Later, the father and son would merge their companies into one, with David acting as CEO and his father as the key adviser.

“I was so happy that when I went to go back to work, I’m glad I picked Maine,” Rosenberg said in 2017. “Otherwise I might never have made it. Maine is one of the finest states that you can do business in. The people are fine, for the most part. I’ve enjoyed a great last 10, 11 years there, and met some fabulous people. I just wish I had grown up in Maine.”

Lee Auto Malls Chairman Adam Lee said Rosenberg, Lee’s former competitor, had a big impact on the automotive industry in Maine, particularly in the way he marketed his business.

“Ira made himself a star in the commercials, and it worked,” he said. “His character really came through in his ads. He also changed the way car dealers advertise in Maine. His ads were funny as was he.”

In his later years, Rosenberg liked to tell humorous stories about his early days in the car business, where tough, often eccentric salesmen would sometimes yell at customers, steal sales from each other and pull various underhanded tricks to get an edge.

“Maybe I shouldn’t be telling you this, but at (the Chevrolet dealership where Rosenberg first worked), we had offices, and every office was bugged,” he told the Press Herald in 2017. “The sales manager would have you go to the customer and try to get the best price and then come back, and we could turn on the thing, and you’d listen to the husband and wife go, ‘Well I’m not going to pay him any more,’ or, ‘We’ll give him a little more money,’ something like that.”

Lee described Rosenberg as a likable “absolute character” full of charm and charisma. He said he would often hang out with Rosenberg at industry functions and listen to his stories.

“He always reminded me of my dad, though they were not in fact anything alike, but they came from a certain era of old-time car dealers who truly loved being with people, talking to their employees, and selling cars,” he said.

A Rosenberg family representative did not respond Thursday to requests for additional information such as surviving family members or memorial service arrangements.

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