John Pulsifer was done with school and realizing that his ambitions of being a lawyer on Wall Street weren’t panning out. Then his dad gave an ultimatum: Get a job by week’s end, or work for me.

Pulsifer didn’t want to pump gas at his father’s service station in Portland. He found a job selling cars at Mill City Chevrolet in Biddeford. That was in 1958.

Over the next half-century, he became southern Maine’s largest car dealer, lost it all in bankruptcy, then came back to operate a more modest Chrysler Dodge Jeep franchise in Saco. He also became known to the public as Jolly John, the boisterous sales personality shouting “Hi-ho!” on television commercials.

This week, after 52 years in Maine’s automobile business, Jolly John Pulsifer is shifting into low, selling the dealership on Auto Mile in Saco and preparing for whatever comes next.

“A new chapter of my life is about to open,” said Pulsifer, who is 73.

Jolly John Auto City is being purchased by Bill Waldron, owner of Portland Volvo and Portland Saab in Scarborough. Waldron will take over Wednesday, said Pulsifer, who expects to help out until the transfer is authorized by Chrysler later this fall.

Pulsifer opened his first dealership in 1979. He expanded rapidly in the 1980s, becoming one of the top Ford Lincoln-Mercury and Volkswagen dealers in the country. In his heyday, Pulsifer ended his commercials with this tagline: “I’m not Jolly unless you’re happy.”

His auto empire was heavily leveraged, however, and the happy mood faded when the economy collapsed. In 1991, Pulsifer was forced to file for personal bankruptcy. Court records at the time listed $1.55 million in assets against $9 million in debts.

As the economy rebounded, Pulsifer got back in the driver’s seat. He took over a dealership on Route 1 in Saco and turned it into a Chrysler store that set sales records in 1993.

Chrysler’s fortunes have diminished considerably since then. Following bankruptcy reorganization, a government bailout and an asset sale to the Italian automaker Fiat, the brand is in limbo. It has operated with a reduced inventory and few new models, as Fiat has ramped up to resume selling cars in the United States.

“On the horizon, they’ve got some great new product coming down the pike,” Pulsifer said.

Pulsifer said Waldron came by and made a purchase proposal in July. After considering it for a while, Pulsifer said the timing was right and decided to sell. The purchase price of the dealership and its four acres wasn’t disclosed. Waldron couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Pulsifer’s peers expressed mixed feelings about the sale.

Ira Rosenberg, president of Prime Motor Group in Saco, sells some of the brands that Pulsifer once dominated. Rosenberg said Pulsifer approached him a few years ago about selling the Chrysler franchise, but he wasn’t interested.

“I have no faith in Chrysler,” he said. “I’m not sure they’ll make it.”

Rosenberg said he never liked the Jolly John ad campaign, and said Pulsifer’s dealership has had little impact on the market in recent years.

One of Pulsifer’s chief rivals was Lee Auto Malls, the state’s top Chrysler dealer, with stores in Auburn and Westbrook.

“He has been a good competitor, although not quite as aggressive in the past year or so,” said Adam Lee, the company’s president.

Lee invited Pulsifer to speak this month at the memorial service for his late father, Shepard Lee. The two men were contemporaries, and Pulsifer told funny stories about Lee’s father and the old days.

“He’s such a character,” Lee said, “such a salt of the earth.”

Pulsifer said he’s not sure what he will do after he walks out of his former dealership, but he doesn’t plan to retire.

“When you go to my wake, you’ll know I’ve retired,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or at: tturkel@pressherald.com