Wheeling and dealing

Bernie Knaus finds cars for buyers in 16 countries—as well as in his adopted hometown

IN THE DRIVER’S SEAT<br> Bernie Knaus gets behind the wheel of a Nissan 350Z in his downtown showroom.

Bernie Knaus gets behind the wheel of a Nissan 350Z in his downtown showroom.

Photo By Meredith J. Cooper

Bernie Knaus trotted across the room, ripped open a white paper storage box and pulled out a cherished photo: the first five cars he sold overseas nearly 20 years ago.

Knaus has a photograph for just about every car he has ever sold, and there are thousands of them. Through the North American Vehicle Export Co., he anticipates his overseas sales alone will hit the $150 million mark this year, thanks to a customer base spanning 16 countries.

“I guess I could have stopped there,” he said, “but friends wanted cars, and I saw a niche here in Chico, the niche of auto brokerage.”

Thus came his latest venture, New Autos Inc.

Usually just the big, glitzy cities tend to have auto brokerages—companies that find cars for the rich and famous, or the big-shot CEOs who can’t be bothered with sitting and signing papers at a traditional dealership.

“I thought, ‘Why not Chico?’ And all my friends thought I went completely nuts. ‘A town that small can’t support a broker. Not enough rich folk,’ they said. But I planned to target the everyday consumer.”

Knaus took over the spot vacated by Joe Cruces’ Classic Cars at 720 Broadway, sinking some serious cash into renovating the place. His operation is really quite simple: A customer walks in with a car in mind, and Knaus (or his team) finds that car.

New Autos scours the state for the best price. If the customer says, “Go for it,” the company arranges all the paperwork and drives the vehicle to the customer’s front door.

“Chico’s kind of in this bubble,” explained Knaus, “where the dealerships have a difficult time getting from the manufacturer the cream or top-of-the-line models. But since we deal statewide, we can get those cars.”

Knaus’ concern for fellow Chicoans is genuine—and deep-rooted.

Born in San Diego, Knaus came to town in the mid-'80s to attend Chico State. A marketing major with a heavy emphasis on international business, he founded Knaus International Business Consulting here. His first ventures came in Japan, but after a partnership went sour, he looked to West Germany, where he explored family roots.

“I met some locals who, when I told them I was from California, asked if our climate was rust-free,” he recalled. After telling them yes, they replied: “Then can you buy and ship us some 1950s-style German automobiles?”

Upon returning to Chico, he scoured classified ads for vintage German cars. This was before the Internet, so he express-mailed information to them. The offer he received: $500 above the asking price per car. He parlayed that into a $14,500 profit, he said, when he bought five cars for $12,000 less than the asking-price total.

He eventually started North American Vehicle Export Co. and cultivated accounts in 16 countries. As the dollar weakened, the more business he did.

He’s never forgotten the home front, though.

On the front counter of his downtown Chico showroom rests an enormous binder overflowing with photographs of every customer that has purchased a vehicle under the New Autos Inc. banner.

But there are other photographs: teachers throughout the North State receiving $200 checks to buy books, for instance, and Boys and Girls Club fundraisers where Knaus has lent out 1950s-style golf carts.

“I made a firm commitment,” he said, “if I’m going to do business in Chico, at the end of the day, I want Chico to be a better place.”