Robert A. “Bob” Smalley, founder of Cruise America, died on Monday (May 28). He was 88.
In 1972 he launched Cruise America with his two sons, Bob Jr. and Randy. Celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2012, Cruise America today is the world’s largest RV rental firm and operates a fleet of over 4,000 motorhomes, rented locally and one-way, from some 130 locations across the lower 48 States, Alaska and Canada. The company is still in family hands to this day.
A Detroit native, Smalley relocated as a child to his adopted hometown of Miami, Fla., where he began his early auto rental career in the mid-1930s helping out his grandfather at his fledgling car rental agency on Miami Beach. Bob’s grandfather was Frank Couture who migrated from Michigan to Florida in the 1920s with the intention of starting up a “U-Drive-It” auto rental business. Soon after arriving in Miami Beach, he opened Couture Motor Company and began renting cars. Miami was a new and booming tourist town whose growth was fueled by attracting winter visitors from the north.
After serving his country in the United States Navy during WW II, Smalley returned to Miami in 1945. There, he went back to work for his grandfather renting cars to Miami’s expanding tourist base. Soon after, in 1950, Bob and his brother Earl bought the auto rental company from their elderly grandfather and immediately renamed the company Couture Rent A Car to better describe its primary focus. From their home base in Miami Beach, the brothers rapidly expanded the company by opening new locations all over Florida and the Caribbean.
The company quickly became the nation’s third largest car rental firm. Along the way, the upstart company caught the eye of the Hertz Corp. At that time, Hertz was the world’s largest rental car company. In 1958 Couture Rent A Car was acquired and merged with The Hertz Corp. Smalley hired on with Hertz and moved his family to corporate headquarters Chicago.
After stints in various areas within Hertz, Smalley joined the international division. Rising to division president, he led the rapid growth of Hertz International in the early 1960’sThe expansion turned Hertz into an international car rental powerhouse and global brand name.
In the early 1960s, Hertz relocated its headquarters to New York City as it continued to expand. Smalley’s rise within the organization continued until he was named to the top slot: president and CEO in August 1968.
He took early retirement in 1971 and returned to South Florida where he launched Cruise America the following year.