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When Richard L. Warner sold his first car, a 1946 Ford, the world was a different place.

Germany and Japan weren't competitors for U.S. automakers; they had barely stopped being enemies. Air bags, antilock brakes and fuel injection hadn't even been thought of yet, even by Dick Tracy.But men in spotless uniforms and crush caps would dash out to clean your car windows and check your oil when you drove in to buy some of their 15-cent-per-gallon gas - and they'd pump it for you, too!

There have been a lot of changes in the industry, agrees Warner, but no more than have occurred in his own career.

During the nearly 50 years that have passed since his first customer drove that new car out of the Bennett Ford showroom, Rick Warner became a giant in the auto industry, both in Utah and nationally.

Although his first loyalty was to Ford, there were few cars that Warner didn't like. Chrysler, Plymouth, Nissan, Pontiac, Mazda, Toyota, Saturn, Lincoln, Mercury, Suzuki, Yugo, Mitsubishi, Volvo, Chevrolet, Delorean, Maserati, Buick, Geo, Hyundai, Sterling, LaForza and a wide range of light and heavy trucks have at one time been Warner franchises.

Now, at age 71 when most men already have a half-dozen retirement years under their belts, Rick Warner is setting off on a new adventure. He and his wife, Marian, have been called to serve an LDS Church mission in the Hawaii Temple. They will go into the Mission Training Center on June 5 and leave for Oahu 10 days later where they will work until December 1996.

"We're thrilled with this call, it's something we've always wanted to do," said Warner.

Like everything he has ever done, from selling cars to smashing aces across a tennis net to launching new companies, such as language translation computer soft-ware firm Alpnet, Warner is throwing himself totally into his new calling. "As of April 15 I became officially retired," said Warner, although he and Marian's nine children and 40 grandchildren figure that being retired will just give him more time to sharpen his serve-and-volley.

Ray Noorda, former chairman of Orem computer firm Novell Inc. and Warner's partner for the past four years, has bought all of the Rick Warner dealerships except for the Ford and Freightliner franchises, which have been bought by Bart Warner, Rick and Marian's son.

Rick concedes that he might miss the hectic world of commerce just a bit someday. "But not right now, because we'll be plenty busy."

As so often happens with people who reach for the brass ring of high achievement in life, Warner operated with a handicap. At age 9, a fall on the ice resulted in a hip bone infection that threatened his right leg, even his life. Both were saved, but young Rick spent six months in a body cast, 18 months on crutches and was left with a permanent limp after doctors fused his hip bone.

That ended his goal to be a football player at the University of Utah, where he graduated in 1945 with a degree in business. It also kept him out of the army but allowed him to go to school and work at some 30 different jobs - from hot dog cook to wallpaper cleaner to maintenance man for the clay courts at the old Salt Lake Tennis Club.

It also got him a part-time job at Bennett Ford where his dad was general manager. "I didn't know a carburetor from a distributor," Warner recalls, but he took a job as a mechanic's helper and soon learned.

Warner worked 19 years for the Bennett brothers, and when his father died, Rick and Bob Bird became co-managers in 1956. Eight years later, in 1964, Warner bought the business from the Bennetts. In 1971, with the buyout payments completed, Bennett Ford became Rick Warner Ford and the Warner dynasty was launched.

Now it has come full circle and it's time to move on to other things, but though the business world is in constant flux, the important things remain unchanged. Warner says while he may forget the names of all the various cars he has sold, along with his annual revenue figures, he won't forget the hundreds of people who have worked for him and whom he credits with his success.

"They are all wonderful people and I've enjoyed every day with them - even the days in which we faced real challenges. To see what people can do when they are left to use their initiative is just wonderful. They are the ones who built the business and they are the ones who will make it grow in the future. I salute them and thank them."

Although Rick Warner the man will be gone from the auto business, his name will not. For the foreseeable future, the dealerships will continue to operate under the name they have carried for the past quarter-century: Rick Warner.