Charles Dascal, car dealer, philanthropist dies at 81

Carlos “Charles’’ Dascal loved shiny new cars, and even in pre-Castro Cuba, he had to have the latest model — every year.

So it made perfect sense that he’d end up selling shiny new cars, and shiny used ones, to drivers in South Florida, where he settled after fleeing the island in 1961.

Dascal moved his wife, baby daughter and parents to a Little Havana duplex and went into made-in-Japan stereo components, which appealed to his love of gadgets.

DYN Electronics made money, and enabled Dascal to co-found Continental National Bank in 1972. Set up in a trailer at 1801 SW First St., it was the country’s first Cuban-American owned bank, catering to exiles such as himself trying to make it in the United States.

It now has seven branches.

With the same cheerful chutzpah that propelled him from one business triumph to another, Dascal announced himself as the bank’s chairman in a cold call to Henry Ford II during the 1974 Christmas holidays.

He asked Ford for a Lincoln franchise — and came away with Midway, the first Ford dealership owned by a Cuban-American.

That year, Time magazine named Dascal one of 200 “Faces From the Future.’’ He didn’t disappoint.

Dascal went on to preside over not just Midway, but South Motors Automotive Group and Vista BMW: 11 showrooms in all.

Dascal, of Miami Beach, was born in Havana on Feb. 16, 1932, and died Monday of cancer. He was 81. He and his wife, Fanny Nieman Dascal, would have celebrated their 59th anniversary on Aug. 15.

A quietly generous philanthropist who chaired the Florida International University Foundation board in the 1990s, Dascal supported dozens of charities, including St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, the Epilepsy Foundation of South Florida, the Jackson Memorial Foundation Guardian Angels, La Liga Contra el Cancer, various arts organizations and the Humane Society of Greater Miami.

The family’s six Maltese dogs, which appear in company advertising, also share the couple’s Biscayne Point waterfront estate, filled with sleek white furniture and, every Sunday afternoon, the Dascals’ three daughters and their families.

They’d gather to gab, nosh, and listen to the patriarch’s stories.

“With ‘Pa,’ you’re never bored,’’ said granddaughter Gabriella Chariff, daughter of Jacqueline Dascal Chariff and Vista/South Motors Executive Vice President Jonathan Chariff. “He can talk for seven hours and it’s interesting and it’s true.’’

“He was king of the monologue,’’ her mother said. “He’d start a conversation, take it 360 degrees, then hit you with a zinger and tie it all up.’’

He could be “a goof, a promoter, the ultimate visionary,’’ she added.

Dascal named his grand home Villa Maravillosa, because that’s what he called himself: “Maravilloso.’’

An “electrical whiz’’ who had to have “the latest and greatest gadgets,’’ according to daughter Jacqueline, Dascal came up with all the ideas for BMW’s designers, some that the company adopted. He’d fly to the Geneva Auto Show in Switzerland and track down BMW’s president so he could present his ideas face-to-face.

His opening line would always be: “Do you know who I am?’’

When Vista became the largest BMW dealership “ IN the world,’’ as Dascal used to say, with great emphasis on “in,’’ he could not have been happier.

“I’m extremely proud of the job our team has done in bringing a world-class dealership to South Florida,” Dascal said in 2004. “It’s exciting to create what we believe will be the prototype for the dealership of the future.’’

Indeed, Dascal prized creativity in all things, from the contemporary art he collected to the birthday gifts he received.

He stood 5-foot-9, but was such a huge presence that he seemed to be 6-foot-4, said Continental National Bank President Guillermo Diaz-Rousselot.

He said Dascal’s vision for the bank never wavered, since he told Time in 1974 that it would “enable the immigrants to build the solid foundation that any minority group needs for its own development.’’

“You can see [Dascal’s commitment] by where we are,’’ said Diaz-Rousselot, who joined the bank in 1977. “We never moved to Coral Gables or Brickell, where the traditional money centers are. The bank belonged to the exile community when it started, and we were there to help other migrants.

“That’s our identity.’’

Longtime friend and business partner Lawrence Hoffman, a Greenberg Traurig founder, said Dascal “was trying to support the exile community and integrate it into the larger community. A lot of effort went into that.’’

The bank also became a target of exile-community anger — and, in 1983 a bomb — after then-Vice Chairman Bernardo Benes opened dialogue with the Castro regime that ultimately freed 3,000 political prisoners.

Dascal, who supported Benes, believed that “freeing people behind bars for many years was the right thing to do,’’ said Diaz-Rousselot, “and he was a friend to his friends. His loyalty is insurmountable.’’

One example: Dulce Maria Rojas, known as “Tata,’’ the Dascal daughters’ nanny, now 91. When “Tata” could no longer work, Dascal moved her into a nearby house and hired someone to look after her.

“I can write you pages of those instances,’’ said Diaz-Rousselot.

But Dascal never sought recognition.

“He doesn’t like his picture or his name in the paper,’’ said son-in-law Jonathan.

And neither appeared in 1999, when Dascal, who’d been involved in early wireless dispatch technology with a company called Telair Network Inc. successfully sued Nextel Communications Inc., alleging that one of its attorneys stole his idea for a nationwide wireless system.

Nextel settled for an undisclosed amount the day the case was set for trial in Miami federal court.

And when the ripple effects of Southeast Bank’s 1991 collapse compelled South Motors to seek bankruptcy-court protection, Dascal “handled it by being straightforward and honest,’’ said Hoffman, though South had done nothing wrong. “It was fair to say he was always a businessman who analyzed a situation to make things work, and that was no different.’’

In addition to his wife and daughter Jacqueline, Dascal is survived by daughters Elizabeth Dascal and Karla Dascal, both of Miami Beach.

Funeral services will be held at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday at Temple Menorah, 620 75th St., Miami Beach. Burial follows at Mount Sinai Memorial Park Cemetery, 1125 NW 137th St., North Miami.

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