In 1969, Dick Dyer moved from Charlotte to Columbia to open a Mercedes-Benz dealership on Two Notch Road in partnership with his longtime boss, Bill Beck.
Two years later, Dyer, who sold cars for Beck with eventual Charlotte Motor Speedway owner Bruton Smith, opened South Carolina’s first Volvo dealership next to his Mercedes lot – labeling his cars “A Dick Dyer Original.”
Forty-four years later, Dyer, 87, took a recent detour to see another Volvo first.
On a recent drive to Charleston, Dyer and his wife, Beth, cruised off Interstate 26 to look at the Berkeley County site where Volvo announced plans last month to build its first North American plant.
“It’s a tribute to South Carolina,” Dyer said. “It’s time we had a plant here, and that’s going to be a good one.”
The $500 million, 2,000-employee plant will begin cranking out two of the 14 new models that the company plans to produce over the next five years. The specific models to be produced have not been decided.
The makeover of the models is key to Volvo officials’ hopes to invigorate a vehicle line that has suffered both from the Great Recession and an aging fleet.
While Volvo’s worldwide sales have risen 13 percent since 2000, reaching an all-time high in 2014, Volvo’s U.S. sales have dropped by 54 percent, according to data provided by the automaker.
But Volvo’s U.S. customers are loyal.
Dick Dyer said buyers typically have purchased Volvos for their reputation of longevity and safety.
“It wasn’t a car that people bought because it was trendy,” he said.
The push to modernize Volvo’s vehicle lineup and the construction of its new plant should help sales, said Hunt Dyer, Dick Dyer’s grandson who now runs the family’s Volvo dealership in Columbia.
“We’ll get fresh cars, and we’ll get them sooner,” Hunt Dyer said.
He also thinks the home-state plant will boost the five Volvo dealerships in South Carolina, giving Palmetto State buyers a reason to check out the foreign automaker.
‘We timed it right’
Swedish-founded Volvo was bought by the Ford Motor Co. before the Great Recession. In 2010, Ford sold it to Chinese automaker Geely.
“It’s positive news for South Carolina dealers because we’ve had several different ownerships recently,” Hunt Dyer said. “A U.S. plant reassures loyal customers that Volvos are here to stay. It’s also brought a ton of good press and publicity for South Carolina and the company.”
Almost by coincidence, Dyer is totally remodeling its Volvo dealership on Two Notch Road.
“Sometimes, it’s better to be lucky than good,” Hunt Dyer said while laughing. “We decided to do the facelift before the plant and the 14 new models were announced. But there were rumors. So, I guess, we timed it right.”
The remodeled dealership will come as Volvo is about to roll out the first of its redesigned vehicles.
Volvo is looking for a spark.
U.S. sales through May are up just 34 vehicles over the first five months of 2014, according to company data.
“It has too many vehicles, all of them nichey,” Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for AutoTrader, told Forbes. “No small company could give each model the promotional and marketing support they deserved to have its voice heard amid the likes of Lexus, BMW and Mercedes.”
The lineup makeover begins this year with the debut of a new version of the XC90 SUV, which analysts say they will watch as a bellwether for the automaker’s changes.
“You can imagine the journey we are making in the next few years,” Lex Kerssemakers, chief executive of Volvo Cars of North America, said at an event in Charleston last month.
‘They’ll know what they are doing’
While it remakes its vehicle lineup, the company plans to return to its original message that Volvos are safe and dependable.
By 2020, the automaker wants to have no fatalities in a Volvo, Hunt Dyer said.
“The main deal for Volvo is safety since they begun,” he said. “They went away from that a little bit.”
Dick Dyer said he is confident Volvo’s Chinese owners will improve the brand.
“Anything they do, they’ll know what they are doing,” he said.
The number of Volvos sold in the United States:
2014 – 56,366
2013 – 61,233
2012 – 68,117
2011 – 67,240
2010 – 53,948
2009 – 61,433
2008 – 73,102
2007 – 106,354
2006 – 116,067
2005 – 123,874
2004 – 139,384
2003 – 135,023
2002 – 110,669
2001 – 125,673
2000 – 123,178
SOURCE: Volvo Cars North America