Eric Peterson

Updated 9/2/2020 5:45 PM

Bob Rohrman, the iconic auto dealer known for his comical television commercials and namesake suburban dealerships, died peacefully from natural causes Tuesday evening with his family at his side, company sources said.

Born the ninth of 11 children in a log cabin in Lafayette, Indiana, Rohrman, 87, built his automotive group from the ground up, starting in 1963 with a used-car lot in his hometown. Today the auto group has 27 new car dealerships in Indiana, suburban Chicago and Kenosha, Wisconsin.

Rohrman launched his first new car dealership with Toyota in 1970, and under his guidance the Bob Rohrman Auto Group grew to one of the largest private dealer groups in North America, company representatives said.

In the suburbs, Bob Rohrman dealerships are in Schaumburg, Palatine, Arlington Heights, Gurnee and Oak Brook.

Along the way, Rohrman gained famed across the Midwest for his wacky commercials — punctuated by the deep baritone of an actor roaring, “Bob ROHR — man!”

For Halloween, he’d dress up as a caped vampire to pitch a “savings spooktacular.” For a Christmas-in-July sale, he dressed as Santa and ho-ho-hoed about “low-low-low” prices.

He spoofed one of the biggest movie franchises with his “Car Wars” commercial, telling a Princess Leia look-alike, “I’m Bob Rohrman. I’m here to rescue you from high prices!”

Some featured a cartoon lion roaring, “When it comes to automobiles, there’s only one Bob ROHR — man!”

When he was at his dealerships, people would ask to take photos with him. If he was at a sports event or enjoying a night out, it was rare to end an evening without someone greeting him with a shout of “Bob ROHR-man!”

A more serious side to his TV commercial persona was found in his philanthropic and charitable contributions in the communities where his dealerships are located.

He recently donated funding for the creation of a state-of-the-art tennis complex for Lafayette Central Catholic High School, the Performing Arts Center at Lafayette Jefferson Public High School, and a lead gift that led to the naming of Rohrman Field at Purdue University’s Ross-Ade Stadium.

“The Rohrman Family cannot express their gratitude for every employee and friend that has labored by his side through the years and look forward to continuing his legacy through the Bob Rohrman Auto Group,” a written statement released by the company reads. “His family will remember him most for his unending love and loyalty, generous heart for philanthropy, feisty spirit, contagious laugh and love for Purdue football.”

In 2016, Mr. Rohrman described the key to his success in an interview with the Indiana Business Journal.

“If you’re going to sell anything, especially cars, because they’re not cheap, you have to fall in love with the customer,” he said. “Because if you fall in love with the customer, they’ll love you, and they’ll never go anywhere else.”

Funeral arrangements were still pending Wednesday, but services are expected to be held sometime next week in Lafayette, company representatives said.

• The Chicago Sun-Times contributed to this story

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