From the prologue of Duke Ellington’s wonderful and whimsical sort of memoir, “Music is my Mistress.”
“The first thing I did was to run out into the front yard, and then through the front gate, where I found someone who said, ‘Go ahead, Edward! Right over there.’ Once on the other side of the street, I ran into someone else who gave me the Go sign for a left-handed turn to the corner. When I got there, a voice said, ‘Turn right, and straight ahead! You can’t miss it!’ And that’s the way it always has been. Every time I reached a point where I need direction, I ran into a friendly advisor who told me what and which way to go to get what or where I wanted to get or go or do.”
And so it has been for me, in many areas of my life, including my obsession with automobiles. Well really, with almost all types of transportation. As the Packard slogan used to say, “Ask the man who owns one.” I’ve never been shy about asking for advice, and I’ve found most people are pleased to give it. The trick is to be able to evaluate the value of the advice, or more to the point, the knowledge and/or motives of the source.
The first people of many who encouraged me were my parents. My mom thought that model building was a constructive (and safe) hobby and as this was the early sixties and likely the “golden age” of styrene plastic car models I was an eager customer. My dad, in his way, was a car guy. But as a young man with a family of four, he would have thought it way too extravagant to have anything but a practical family car, but his choices reflected someone with more than a passing interest. But excepting the following, we’ll save them for a future article.
My dad was a Chevy man. When he married my mom they drove to their honeymoon in Lake Taneycomo in their brand new two-tone (beige over green) 1954 Bel-Air two-door sedan. He remained loyal until our 1966 Impala developed engine problems and for the first time in his life, my dad actually purchased a new car off of the lot. This is where Cliff comes in.
The subdivision we lived in consisted of around 300 houses, built in 1956-57 (not coincidentally also the peak of the second surge of the baby boom). My youngest sister and Cliff’s youngest daughter were best friends and we knew Cliff’s family socially, so it made sense that he was the person we went to. He was a born salesman, in the best sense of that image. A jovial person who seemed to always be smiling or laughing, exuberant without being overbearing. His physique and demeanor was similar to that of Stubby Kaye. So on a November afternoon in 1970 our family acquired a new Plymouth Sport Fury four-door hardtop from O’Leary-McClintock Chrysler-Plymouth.
As the dealership was adjacent to the relatively new Northwest Plaza (the largest shopping center in the world when it opened in 1965) we often dropped by on a Saturday for a visit. The building was the usual cinder block and glass box that was the standard for late mid-century Chrysler-Plymouth and Dodge dealers, and of course a curious car kid it was much more fun than a trip to a mall.
To this day, peering into an early 1970s Chrysler product sends me back 50 years. In retrospect, the interiors were kind of cheap looking. A lot of plastic that didn’t fit well, and many components that were used across the board, from Valiant to Imperial.
Also during this period there was a lot of promotional material heavily influenced by the pop-art movement, as were the graphics applied to some of the flashier cars.
There was always one car, tucked away in the back of the showroom, which had a few long, leather “wallets” with transparent plastic envelopes that held three by five cards listing the new car inventory. Each card had the price, color, VIN etc. and a long number that almost could have been the VIN except buried in the numbers was the cost to the dealer. At the time, these figures were as closely guarded as the nuclear codes. The things you can learn by just hanging out.
Another double bonus for us was, if our car needed service, Cliff would stop by our house in the morning and pick it up, and leave his demonstrator for us to use. They were almost always Chryslers, which by this time had grown to gargantuan proportions. Once it was a two-door 300. Even to my young eyes it seemed awfully tail heavy, but man it was fast, and inside it had bucket seats and a floor shifter for the Torqueflite (but still a lot of tacky plastic).
This was also the zenith of the muscle car era, just before emission controls and low and no lead (as well as low octane) fuel became the norm, and Chrysler was arguably the biggest and most successful player.
From the entry level Duster 340 through the budget Satellite based Roadrunner (with its standard bench front seat and rubber floor mats) to the Hemi-Cuda Barracuda (also available with the 440 “Six Pack,” three two barrel carburetors) there wasn’t much that the competition could beat, at least in a straight line.
The dealership did its share to bring in the younger, more performance oriented crowd, and Chrysler’s reputation in this market was very strong. Especially if you were in the market for the most “bang for the buck.” Among my street racing friends the Mopars also had a good reputation for being the last to break when pushed (and pushed they were). But Cliff never had any of those models as a demo. And just as I seemed to have avoided getting the “sports gene,” I was never been a huge fan of muscle cars so I didn’t really mind. I’d take mid-seventies BMW 2002 or Porsche 911 over any of them.
Cliff was such a successful salesperson the owners of the dealership realized it might cost them less to bring him in as a partner, and not long after our first purchase, this is what happened, but it didn’t end well. Apparently some of the numbers were “cooked,” and within a year the dealership closed.
I know this sounds very strange in today’s world, but Cliff was the first adult (he and my father were both in their fifties by this point) I knew who lost his job. Some of the Saturdays when we would have been hanging out at the store were spent helping him organize supplies and equipment for eventual sales. I wish I had asked for the vintage print of the Chrysler Turbine Cart that was still being displayed more than ten years after that experiment.
I wish I knew more of Cliff’s background, but he had arrived at this point having spent his life in the car business. And as I was about to come to find out, he knew everyone. He managed to get by buying and selling cars, and after not very long he became a new car salesman at a local Ford dealer. After the purchase of my VW Beetle, he recommended a mechanic with his own “shop” nearby. Northwest Motors was a run down former gas station with a scattering of the same used cars in front that remained fixtures just as much as the Volkswagen carcasses in the back. But the proprietor, Chuck Adams, had a reputation in the area. Apparently when automatic transmissions became popular, local dealers would often bring him in to repair what their own mechanics could not. He later became a top-notch VW mechanic. I did not need much help with the Beetle, but he came in handy later.
The auto body shop where my first Karmann-Ghia was repaired had been across the street from O’Leary-McClintock. Chuck rebuilt the engine on my second. And Cliff sold me my first new car; the then all-new Fox bodied Mustang.
Throughout this entire time, he remained a good family friend. He and his wife were at my parents’ house often for the sporadic holiday parties and the more frequent barbecues. (I now know this is an inaccurate term, what we called “barbecue” or “Bar-B-Q” was more accurately just grilling, but even the shallowest steel grill was called a “barbecue pit.” I wonder if this was a common mid-west nomenclature?) One of my high school friends lived across the street from Cliff and his family and on summer nights we’d hang out outside. My friend was a motorcyclist in high school and once when we were outside Cliff mentioned to him that when it came time to buy new tires he had a friend in the business and he could get a good deal because they were highly marked up. I asked why no one had the idea to enter the market with lower prices and he turned to me and said, “Discounting is not going to make you the big man in any business. Everyone else will eventually match your price and you’ll all make less.” A marketing lesson I’ve never forgotten.
Cliff eventually retired, but remained in our family’s circle until his death about two decades ago. Were he here today, when dealers can no longer depend on mark-up (see above for how that worked out) and now have a strategy of taking good long-term care of their customers, I think he’d be thriving. A car guy through and more than that, a nice man.