WOODLAND HILLS, CA - When Steve Shuken opened the new Vista Ford dealership here in 1974, the outlook was dicey at best.

"The auto industry was trying to emerge from the first Middle East oil embargo and the Pinto Ford had introduced as an economy car was literally catching fire all over the place," recalls Mr. Shuken.

"I had been struck by the success of (Lee) Iacocca's Mustang in the 1960s while working at Chevrolet, Chrysler-Plymouth and American Motors stores in California, Seattle and western Canada.

"And I was determined to apply for an open Ford point as soon as I could in my native L.A. But it was no picnic getting Vista Ford off the ground."

Opening Vista Ford on the San Fernando Valley's main drag, bustling Ventura Boulevard, Mr. Shuken put together a team of 38 employees. He averaged sales of 85 new vehicles a month the first year, struggling to sell "one price only" Pinto subcompacts for $2,575.

"The 'Valley' was beginning to grow, so we knew we had a shot to succeed if we made Vista Ford a 'true brand,'" Mr. Shuken, 61, recollects.

"By that I mean a place where customers and shoppers instinctively turn to for their new- and used-car needs and where employees like coming to work. It also means growing steadily, whatever the quality of products you're handed, so that your managers can find opportunities for advancement within your organization."

That Mr. Shuken has stuck to his formula over 25 years is obvious.

Vista Ford has become a mainstay on the Ward's Dealer 500 despite sharing the Valley market with top- ranked Galpin Ford, up Interstate 405 in North Hills, CA, and despite weathering other hurdles like the second oil embargo which wiped out about 1,200 Ford franchises in 1980-81, not to mention other Ford product miscues like Fairlane and Probe.

In 1999, Vista Ford sold 3,609 new and 1,327 used vehicles on a campus that includes Lincoln Mercury, Isuzu and - rare for Ford outlets - a charter Lexus store.

The employee total for the Ford dealership alone reached 203 and Mr. Shuken is a five-time winner of both the Ford President's and Elite of Lexus awards.

As a Ford partisan who is a long-time customer of Ford Credit, Mr. Shuken admits he became disenchanted in 1998 when the automaker embarked on its now-aborted effort to create "Collections" of dealerships in certain metro markets.

He says, "Ford executives are some of my best friends, and my blood runs 'Ford blue' because of all the great products they're offering.

"But I felt that when they were going around buying up dealerships, they were looking for another partner to replace loyal dealers. It was very threatening to all of us who had invested so much in Ford.

"Now that the new management (Chairman Bill Ford Jr. and CEO Jac Nasser) has ended the flirtation with that plan, my faith is restored. We have a GM Collection to compete with in the Valley (Wes Rydell), but that's the competition and we can take care of them."

In the late 1990s, Mr. Shuken expanded his "brand" to include smaller Ford dealerships in Oxnard and Santa Paula, CA, and a Honda point in Ventura, CA, which this year won a Honda President's award.

His Isuzu franchise was the GM-owned truck brand's first in the U.S., and Mr. Shuken is looking for more franchise opportunities in outlying growth areas.

"Sure, we've been offered buyouts by the big consolidators, but all my three kids are in the business and I would like to see them and our managers have a chance to run and build this business even more," he says. "I know too many dealers whose consolidator experiences have been not the best."

Son John Shuken, 39, is general manager of Vista Ford, while son William Shuken, 40, is general manager of Vista Lexus. The sales manager of Vista Lexus, Tori, 34, their sister, is one "of Lexus's best," says the proud dad, who has eight grandchildren.

Randy Haddock, general manager of Woodland Hills' Vista Ford, is a partner in the new Oxnard Ford dealership, reflecting Mr. Shuken's philosophy for enabling long-time employees to advance to greater responsibilities.

Asked who he regards as the "best dealer," Mr. Shuken singled out Greg Penske and Tom Rudnai, president and general manager, respectively of Longo Toyota and Long Lexus, top-volume dealerships in El Monte, CA, east of L.A.

"They understand the essence of the car business and have a super management staff," declares Mr. Shuken. "Greg's dad, Roger Penske, definitely will turn around the UnitedAuto Group he now runs in the image of Longo Toyota and the other Penske dealerships in California."