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America was freshly done celebrating her 200th birthday in 1977, when a 25-year-old Las Cruces entrepreneur named Danny Gamboa decided to try his hand selling premium used cars from a small lot with a 1,000 square-foot sales office at the corner of Amador and Esperanza streets. Today, it’s the oldest independent used-car dealership in Las Cruces.
He’d worked selling cars for the previous four years, working at the local Chevrolet dealership, but he couldn’t get promoted off the sales lot into management because he lacked a college degree.
“I figured if I could sell cars for the big boys, I could sell cars for myself,” he said, so he started a plan to open his own lot. It took about two years for everything to come together, and during that period, he thought about ways to make his place stand out from every other used-car lot in Las Cruces.
His solution: Corvettes.
In the early days of the dealership, Gamboa was the go-to guy for Corvette enthusiasts. He had a row of the curvy Stingrays out front, and if he didn’t have the one a particular customer wanted, he’d hunt the auctions to find the right car.
Over time, the other dealerships in town saw his success and began to carry more Corvettes, as well. Undaunted, Gamboa switched strategies and started stocking Jeeps. Once again, he became a trendsetter in the local market, and once, again, the other dealers followed his lead.
Fast forward 43 years, and the business he started on a shoestring is now home to dozens of vehicles on any given day, and Gamboa himself still travels to the regional wholesale auctions to bring back the cream of the crop for display and sale on his much-expanded lot.
Gamboa outgrew his original lot and sales building in 2007, and he bought a property on just over three acres just west of the original dealership, upon which he erected what his son, Gabriel, calls “a state-of-the-art facility with a nostalgic feel.” In addition to the shiny vintage vehicles, the showroom sports sales offices, a full kitchen, and even a lawyer’s office. There used to be a barber shop, too, but it closed. There’s a detailing shop in the back.
His dealership remains unique, with a spacious, 18,000-square foot showroom, where he displays vintage cars and trucks – including a 1970’s-era Corvette convertible.
“We get a lot of people who come in here and say they had no idea what was in here,” Gamboa said. “Today it’s not so much the vehicles on the lot that make us unique. It’s the showroom itself. People seem to love it.”
Gamboa said a lot has changed in the used-car market since he started his business, but a lot has stayed the same.
“Everyone wants to buy a car,” he said, “but the financing is the hard part.”
To that end, Gamboa has long maintained personal relationships with the loan officers of the local banks, credit unions and loan companies. He said his business model is one-on-one listening, then finding the right fit in terms of both vehicle and financing options for each customer.
Gamboa and his son, Gabriel, are the driving forces behind Casa de Autos, but the whole family has had involvement at one level or another.
“I sold my first car here when I was 13, in 1994,” Gabriel Gamboa said. “It was a ’76 or ’77 VW van, and I sold it to a couple of hippies for $700. I’ll always remember it.”
All three of Danny Gamboa’s children – Gabriel, Tess and Leandra – have degrees from New Mexico State University, and all of them put in their time alongside Dad at the dealership. Gabriel and Tess took to the sales side, while Leandra developed an expertise in title transfers. Even Danny Gamboa’s wife, Paula, and grandson Othello have pitched in. Paula helped keep the books and Othello, now 17, detailed cars.
Tess went on to become a physical-rehabilitation doctor with a practice in Albuquerque, and Leandra is an immigration attorney in San Francisco. Othello is studying art in Santa Fe.
Asked about numbers of sales spanning 43 years, Danny Gamboa shrugged and said, “countless.”
Next to the business office, facing the showroom, there’s a flat-screen TV that shows a running series of slides of the most recent customers along with Danny or Gabriel shaking the customer’s hand in front of the newly purchased vehicle.
“The reason for our longevity, Danny Gamboa said, “is our ability to adapt to change and the fact that we stand by our products. If someone buys a car from me, and they don’t like it, I’ll buy it back. And people like the fact that on Fridays, I just might pop open a beer with them.”
Gabriel Gamboa said the dealership isn’t going anywhere for a good, long time. “My father taught me that the person whose name is up on the sign is who you should find inside the building. I will continue to be the person you find.”
The inventory at Danny Gamboa’s Casa de Autos can be viewed on the lot or at casadeautosnm.com. Business hours are 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.