John E. “Jack” Reilly, an automotive industry pioneer who helped start the U.S. operations of Volkswagen, Porsche, Audi and Isuzu, has died. He was 77.
Reilly died Friday at his home in Dana Point of complications from lung cancer.
As the founding U.S. executive at American Isuzu Motors, he helped introduce U.S. consumers to the sport utility vehicle and the compact pickup truck.
He also served in 1990 as chairman of the Assn. of Import Auto Manufacturers. He called it the lobbying group for the import automakers that Detroit loved to hate.
Late in his career, Reilly became chairman of American Isuzu, the only non-Japanese to hold the chairmanship of a Japanese-owned import brand in the U.S.
A native of Pennsylvania, Reilly earned a degree in business at Boston College in 1951 and began working as a salesman for an automotive parts supplier.
He joined General Motors Corp. in 1957 as a sales executive in the Buick division and was among the first group of U.S. executives to see the potential of the import brands that had begun to establish a foothold in the U.S.
In 1963, he left the domestic auto industry to become national sales manager for the then-fledgling Volkswagen Cars of America.
“Management had become so ossified that opportunities for advancement and creativity lay outside” the domestic industry, he told The Times in a 1990 interview.
Reilly became president of Porsche/Audi of North America in 1969 during a period when Volkswagen owned the German sports and performance car makers, but left in 1971 to become partner and co-owner of independent Toyota distributorships in the New England and mid-Atlantic regions.
Reilly said many times over the years that he delighted in the challenges of introducing new automotive brands to consumers.
His success with Toyota brought him to the attention of executives at Japanese truck maker Isuzu Motors as they were considering establishing a U.S. arm.
In 1980, Reilly became the first U.S. employee of what was to become American Isuzu Motors Inc.
He moved to Capistrano Beach in Orange County, his home for the next 23 years, and established Isuzu’s North American headquarters in the City of Industry.
During his tenure, Isuzu’s national network grew to 560 dealerships, and the Isuzu Trooper, an early SUV, became one of the country’s most popular trucks.
Isuzu sales hit their peak of 120,000 a year in 1988 under Reilly’s leadership.
He retired from an active role in the company in 1997 but served as senior advisor until 2001.
In recent years, as American Isuzu’s fortunes lagged, Reilly expressed “great frustration and sadness at the decline of ‘his’ company,” said his son Robert.
In retirement, Reilly was an active golfer until sidelined by Parkinson’s disease in 2002.
He is survived by his wife, Eleanor; sons Robert and James; daughters Susan Weaver and Jennifer Diggs; 11 grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.
A memorial service is to be held at 11 a.m. Friday at St. Edward Catholic Church in Dana Point. The family asks that any memorial donations go to the American Cancer Society.