Bob Kelley, Publisher of Kelley Blue Book, Pioneered Used Vehicle Values

Kelley managed and published the Kelley Blue Book, building it from a well-known auto value guidebook into a pioneering internet resource.

Photo: Kelley Family / Graphic: Bobit

Bob Kelley, former publisher of the Kelley Blue Book, died May 28 at his home in Indian Wells, California, of natural causes, according to his official obituary. He was 96 years old.

Kelley managed and published the Kelley Blue Book, building it from a well-known auto value guidebook into a pioneering internet resource.

Bob’s uncle Les Kelley (1897-1990) founded the Los Angeles auto dealership Kelley Kar Company and Kelley Blue Book. His father “Buster” Kelley (1908-2001) managed the business for many years. 

The Kelley family played an important role in the growth and development of the automotive industry in Los Angeles and eventually the entire nation. Recognized by the U.S. government as an “official guide,” Kelley Blue Book became a reliable source to establish pricing for used cars during WWII when new cars were not manufactured.

“When he talked about innovation, Bob Kelley insisted on making adjustments on vehicle values based on how many miles they had,” said Charlie Vogelheim, a former executive editor of Kelley Blue Book and son-in-law of Bob Kelley. “No one else was doing that at the time. He got mileage to be part of a valued adjustment.”

Born Robert Sidney Kelley in 1927 in Los Angeles, Bob Kelley started working at the dealership as a lot boy doing various odd jobs. He graduated from Los Angeles High School’s Class of 1945. During WWII, he attended the University of New Mexico’s naval aviator training program.

At the end of the war, he left the Navy and rejoined Kelley Kar Company. At the dealership, he was responsible for appraising, reconditioning, pricing, and selling hundreds of used cars a month.Based on his expertise, Bob would help determine the values published in the Kelley Blue Book. He became one of the most influential sources in the burgeoning post-war car industry. 

“The dealership was one of the most knowledgeable places in the U.S. on vehicle values,” said Vogelheim, in an interview with Automotive Fleet. “Bob used the information he gathered for the Blue Book. He would often drive home the oldest car on the lot every day to understand why it hadn’t sold yet.”

The dealership was sold in the 1960s and Kelley became publisher of Blue Book. He extended the coverage from used cars to include imports, trucks, motorcycles, RVs, mobile homes, and new and classic/collector cars.

“He was really a proponent of vehicle relationships,” said Vogelheim, referring to Bob’s ability to value used vehicles based on such differences as two-door versus four-door, four cylinders versus six cylinders, and other details and characteristics of vehicles. “He understood the difficulty of offering thousands of vehicle values in a pocketbook. The corners of KBB were rounded so they could easily come in and out of your shirt pocket.”

In the later chapters of his career, Bob supported developing new ways to distribute information. He oversaw expansion to computer-based products and the internet, resulting in Kelley Blue Book becoming the premier resource for automotive value information to both the industry and consumers. 

“It was the first guidebook to recognize trucks as retail and not just commercial,” said Vogelheim, who worked at KBB from 1985-2005. “We were different from other guidebooks. They would depreciate vehicles based on commercial use and not retail use.”

Bob Kelley retired from Kelley Blue Book in 2000. Also known as, it was sold in 2010 to Cox Automotive.

Bob was the beloved patriarch of the Kelley family. He is survived by Wanda, his wife of over 50 years, his sister, his five children, 12 grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren.

The family will be celebrating his life at a private memorial tribute. No public services are planned.

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