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THE BACK SEAT OF A CHEVETTE
I looked out my office window at Sierra Motors to spy a tow truck with a Chevy Chevette chained too its back. It seemed to be a rite of passage with all the changes coming to GM in the next couple of months this old dog just couldn’t take it anymore. It was at peace with the fact that all that rattling metal would probably make its way into about five new hybrids saving mankind from global warming. (LOL)
When I started selling cars, in 1983, we had real jewels like the Chevrolet Citation, Celebrity and Chevette. Believe me when I say that GM was already lost in the 1980’s. The best new car models they could produce would be the Lumina, Corsica and Beretta.
The test drive in a Chevette was an experience. You had to be a contortionist because the driver’s seat did not sit square. It wasn’t exactly facing the front. The steering wheel came at you from an angle and it was off center. So much so that your right hand would be about two inches closer to your body than your left. For the driver it all came together with the hump in the floor from the transmission, remember the Chevette was still rear wheel drive. So all of the pedals were offset to the left. So your driving position was crooked, with your upper torso twisted to the right and your legs twisted to the left and your arms at two different lengths, in other words, a chiropractors dream.
I looked out and saw a nice couple looking at one of the last new Chevettes. After a short presentation and very little investigation we went for a test drive. I’m in the back seat, the Chevette routine starts. I place my left foot on a rattle. I place my right hand on a wind noise. Something else is making noise so I put my right foot on it and finally my left hand is keeping the rear window from whistling. All I can think about is how bad this test drive is going.
We pull back into the dealership I start to apologize…but I don’t. I follow my training and in an upbeat tone I ask “well how did you like it?” To my amazement they started saying things like, “nice ride” and “good acceleration” and “nice and quiet”. Standing in disbelief all I could do was ask, “What did you drive here in?”
They pointed to a 1963 VW bug. It was one of the old 32 horsepower, air-cooled engines. It had a rear quarter window missing. They then went on to describe how in there 15 years of marriage, that they had always aspired to get their first new car and this was it. To be able to finally afford a car with a new car warranty (12 months, 12,000 miles back then) was the fulfillment of years of working and saving together.
I realized then and there that my paradigms were of no importance. If I was going to be a success in this business I had better learn from the potential customer early and ‘LISTEN’ to what their values and needs were. To find a customers needs and wants could only be done by taking the time to actually listen to them, before trying to sell anything.
A lesson that I learned in the back seat of a Chevette…. and that’s the only thing you could do in the backseat of a Chevette.
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One of the worst things about Auto Malls is the disconnection from the community. It is no longer a neighborhood business. In a Mall you don’t get the chance to have regular visitors from the residents and local business’ and the lessons learned from them. Employees can no longer walk to work or drive in less than five minutes. Not much of the neighborhood evening, walk off the dinner crowd, either.
We had an Independent Living Center in the neighborhood behind the dealership. The four or five Men that lived there had varying degrees of disability. But compared to some of the “normal” customers that we had to work with, they were good folks and a lot easier to deal with.
Mike was a regular from the Center and was a favorite of most of the salesmen. Although Mike had a grey beard and was balding, he had the natural joy of a child. Every morning he would walk through the lot on the way to the bus stop. It was impossible to greet him with anything but a smile. He knew each of us by name. Every day after work he would stop and ask questions. He would ask if we liked a certain car and if he could have a brochure. I think he had more brochures than we did. He would ask if we were selling anything. He would ask each salesman “How are you”?
Mike was a part of the dealership. He was happy everyday that he had a place to live. He was happy everyday that he had a place to work. As a matter of fact he was good at being happy. Most of all I think, he was happy to have friends. Being part of Mike’s life is one of benefits of a neighborhood job.
Sometimes Mike would wander into the middle of a sale and some customers would get annoyed. I have seen more than one customer told to leave if they where rude to Mike and the guys. If anybody was ever mean to one of the guys, none of the salesmen would stand for it. It was better to loose a possible sale than to let anybody talk down our friends.
A simpler, purer heart I have not met. Mike never meant any disrespect. If he did realize that he was interrupting, he would simply say a heartfelt “Sorry”. Maybe that is part of what is wrong with the large dealerships and being in an Auto Mall, the “Mikes” are missing.
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Reflecting from my office across the dealership at Sierra Motors in Jamestown I ofton wonder what little things in my life took place to lead me to become a GM.
I’m sure with a smile in my heart this is one of them.
We all have experienced disappointment at some point(s) in our lives. Friends, relatives, parents or children, not to mention jobs, athletic endeavors and relationships, all have their pitfalls. But do you remember your first disappointment?
As I grew up my Dad set a great example by having an excellent work ethic. He was never unemployed and always provided for our family. In retrospect, I always knew that my Father was very fortunate to work for a good man. Things were different back in the 60’s. Guys that worked together seemed to do family things together.
My dad’s Boss was Jim. It seemed to me as a kid that Jim was family. My Dad went and spent everyday with him at work and our families did things together on evenings and weekends. I even called him “Uncle Jim”. It never crossed my mind as a child that it was any other way.
I walked out of Jim’s front door, to go into his garage, where he and my Father were working on some project together. I heard Jim say to my Dad “I sure like it when Eric calls me Uncle Jim”. My five year old mind and body froze. I couldn’t even think of all of the ramifications of that statement.
On the way home, I asked my Dad, “Why did Jim say that he like me calling him Uncle Jim… isn’t he”? In my mind I addressed all of my Uncles and Aunts in the same manner. Weather it was Uncle Bill or Aunt Pat, it was their relationship followed by their first name. Then the bomb dropped. My Father told me, “He’s not really your uncle you just call him that.”
I couldn’t believe it. I had been duped. I knew that I would never call him Uncle Jim ever again. I was so disappointed!
I must have gotten over it soon though, as I happily spent time with Jim over the years. We did things like fishing together. When I was having trouble learning to water-ski he yelled out from the boat, “Ride it like a skate board” and I did. My back foot was sideways for the first summer of skiing. For some odd reason, he called me “Chicken Kid” and I called him “Chicken Man”. He still influences me to this day.
But, I really thought he was my Uncle. And at the end of the day it’s not blood it’s the heart. I love you uncle Jim…I mean chicken man…
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“Who is the old guy that hangs out around here?” I asked. “That’s Sarge, He’s the eyes and ears of the owner, watch it”, was the common reply. I was new in the car business, but, a guy who watches and tells didn’t seem right to me. I didn’t know anything about the guy except that he was old, short and I didn’t trust him. So I made a point of making my position known to him.
I was in a small used car office when Sarge walked in. I don’t even remember what I said to him other than something to piss him off. Apparently this time it did. No sooner did the words leave my lips than Sarge jumped over the desk and put me up against the wall. He grabbed my necktie and spun it around as to restrict my airway. This old, short, retired Sergeant was in the middle of calling me a “smart ass” when I calmly asked him to let me go. I learned that strength is better displayed through endurance then fighting back.
Over the next 20 years I learned a lot more from Sarge. He was a non-commissioned pilot in WWII. He flew supplies to Patton. He dropped Para-troopers into battle. Sarge landed in North Africa and was captured by Rommel. He was a Prisoner of War. Marching through the snow going into Germany he escaped. His description of hiding in French sewers has forever affected any possible positive thoughts of the French and the smell of their food. Sarge talked about getting smuggled across the English Channel in a fishing boat. He said that he spent three weeks drinking before reporting back to duty.
When describing the flack burst that left him peppered with shrapnel, shredded the cockpit of his Bomber and killed his co-pilot, He said “After a couple of minutes you realize that what you feel, running warm down your leg, must not be piss”. Bleeding, he landed that plane.
Sarges told me with tears in his eyes, that he would much rather tell me of the women that he knew and the alcohol he drank, instead of the friends that he lost.
It was a privilege to have learned respect from my friend. I still can’t believe that he jumped over that desk. But I know I’m better for it. Thanks you old goat, for allowing me to learn self worth in a common moment, in a small used car office.
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PILLOW BACK SEATS
As with a lot of people, some of the activities that I participated in during my youth were less than respectful endeavors. It was during my first year in car sales and after one of “those” nights in 1984, that I showed up to work more than a little hung over.
July in the Mojave Desert is hot, dry, dusty and windy. I had been out almost all night and came to work in less than stellar condition. This was not all that unusual for me at the time. It was in the middle of the day and about 107 degrees in the shade. I was dehydrated from last night’s alcohol consumption. I don’t think I slept at all, as a matter of fact it was, “AN ALL NIGHTER”. But here I am in a dress shirt, slacks and a tie …”Ready to dance’.
In comes a nice older Gentleman. He is driving an older Caprice. He wants to look at a new Caprice Classic Brougham. You remember the really cool one that had the quarter vinyl roofs… Hood ornaments and white wall tires of course they were standard. This one had these really nice pillow back seats and the ride was so smooth. Don’t forget the wire wheel covers. It reminded me of the one they drove to do the circumcision, on Saturday Night Live.
The Gentleman says that he would like to take it on the freeway. That sounded great to me. We had had the A/C on for a little while and it was so nice and cool inside. Those pillow-back seats must have been really comfortable. We got on the freeway and headed north, I fell asleep.
It’s hard to judge how much time passes when you’re asleep. But when I opened my eyes I soon realized that we were almost to Mojave. I suggested that we turn around now. We did and went back to the dealership. He liked the Brougham, so he traded his Caprice in and bought it.
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My Dad has a friend, Lovell. I have never heard anything but good about this guy. He is a gentleman in his 60’s and has a passion for his beliefs. I have had a few opportunities to converse with Lovell, and always enjoyed the conversation.
Lovell came to the dealership to look around. He was going to be in the market for another car soon. One of our nicest salespeople was with him. They spent a lot of time going over what he was looking for. They looked at more than a few cars. They spent time on options and safety equipment. Then there were a couple of test drives.
Prior to working in a best price up front environment, I always used to say, “That I could afford to give cars away to my friends because so many people wanted to negotiate.” If anybody would just come in and ask me to take care of them, I would. If someone didn’t trust me and thought that they could out negotiate us to get a better deal, that’s when we made most of our profit. Lovell wasn’t sure what position he was going to take on this issue, but I knew; he was a friend of my Dad’s.
We gave Lovell the absolute best price that we could right up front. Lovell liked the car; it fit his needs and was in his price range. It was a simple cash deal. Lovell put a stop to the sale “I would buy the car right now but I forgot my checkbook”. Poker is a dish best served with a winning hand. I had to call his bluff.
“My Dad trust’ you, so I trust you”, I continued, “So go ahead and take the car home and when you find your check book come back in and pay for it”. This stymied Lovell. We sat there, quietly for what seemed like a long couple of minutes.
Lovell did what I hoped that he would do. He reached into his back pocket and opened up not one, but two checkbooks and wrote checks from each for the purchase. He drove that car for a few years until he was in an accident. He fell asleep at the wheel and went up an embankment. The car was airborne and landed on its roof. He was completely unhurt. He came in and bought another one.
I think what doesn’t occur to people, even good honest people like Lovell, lying to a salesperson is still lying, which when I think about it, is the only defense a customer has.
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SPORTY GIRLFRIEND, SPORTY CAR
Being in the car business for 26 years I have been on a lot of test-drives, mostly uneventful. Once in a while a driver can get away from you.
The new Camaro Z-28 was an impressive car. It had the designation H.O., for high output. The unmistakable V-8 rumble brought a note of performance. It could be matched with a five-speed manual transmission. T-tops seemed to make the car complete. A great road car, built for the enjoyment of the driver.
Vern came into the dealership and was immediately drawn to the new Camaro. He asked questions about the cars performance. I told him about the fuel injection, the Goodyear Eagle tires, five-speed transmission and rack & pinion steering. We talked acceleration and top speed. Vern seemed very interested in the limits of the Camaro. The only thing that seemed out of the ordinary was that Vern was 83 years young.
I grabbed a dealer plate and made a copy of his driver’s license, ready to go. You gotta love the sound of the V-8 when it comes to life, nice and throaty. Vern seems very comfortable behind the wheel. He heads straight for the freeway. So far everything is good. As Vern pulls onto the freeway, he has his foot heavy on the accelerator.
From 50 mph to 100 mph takes only a couple of seconds when you are on the gas hard. “VERN!!!” I said loud and direct, but receiving no response. Vern kept his foot buried on the accelerator. We shot passed 120 mph…a lot of things crossed my mind…from this is a dangerous speed to this guy is 83 years old.
I actually yelled at Vern “SLOWDOWN!!!”. Vern looked at me with his foot still on the gas and stated emphatically, “Look I got a sporty younger girlfriend and I need a sporty car”! I didn’t think Vern was very happy with me as we ended the test drive. He said that he would be back tomorrow and would let me know. “Great… another passenger on the be-back bus”, I muttered to myself.
The next day to my surprise 83-year-old Vern came in with his 75-year-old sporty younger girlfriend. He told her all of the performance specs and how great it drove. She listened and nodded. He wrote a check for the new manual transmission Camaro Z-28 with t-tops and signs all of the paperwork. They are both all smiles.
He burnt rubber pulling away from the dealership and got scratch going into second and third gear. Sporty indeed.
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First & foremost, I love my nephew Mikey and am very proud of him. I am positive that Mike was born to be a Marine. He took to boot camp like a duck to water. He is on his second tour in the Middle East. He is currently stationed in Iraq. A man that volunteered to go into harms way for the protection of others, what a Stud. He and his wife Stephanie are just good people.
Just before Mike was set to go, I asked him what he wanted to do before he left Lancaster. His answer was as simple and straightforward as the man himself, “ride Five Deer”. We have ridden mountain bikes together for years. This one trail is special. It is lovingly called “the toughest downhill you will ever climb”. Although only 12 miles long, it is full of intense, rocky, rutted, windswept, breathtaking fun. In other words just right for the occasion.
Our early morning start was greeted with gusting 35mph winds and rain clouds. The best place to park is where Spunky Canyon road and Bouquet Canyon road meet. The cloud level was about 20 feet over our heads. Off we went. The ride started with a five mile climb. The steepness and lack of traction was compensated by horizontally blowing stinging rain. Sometimes I could just make out Mikes silhouette ahead of me in the clouds.
Upon reaching the summit we are usually greeted by a great view, not today. We rode a couple of miles along the ridgeline to get to the trailhead. The actual force of the storm up on the ridge was awesome. We found the trailhead, ate a couple of power gels and took off down Five Deer. It is a narrow trail with little room for error. The wheel swallowing ruts that have head size rocks in them were now filling with runoff water. The technical climbing portions were even more fun. An epic ride.
We were soaked, muddy, breathing hard and smiling ear to ear. This is a ride that has to be experienced. We somehow reached the fast portion of the ride and went blazing down the road back to our truck. Barreling down hill I spotted a major mud pit just ahead. With Mike just in front of me, I had to time it just right. Expending all remaining energy to accelerate, I hit the mud just in front of mike and covered him with thick southern California mud. We coasted to the truck, laughing.
I could not imagine a better way to send off Mike. It was a perfect day. Did I mention that I love my nephew and am very proud of him?
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It was not the position that I had expected to find myself in. Explaining to an 11 year old what was going to happen to his beloved station wagon. It was a prototypical sale, one where everybody leaves happy. I thought.
The family comes in on a Saturday, looking to replace their aging station wagon. You remember the ones with the fake wood sides and the backwards facing, not to mention car sickness inducing, rear seats.
A family of four still needs some room, but the late 70’s model wagon with a mid-six figure odometer, has seen better days.
The sale was almost nondescript in that everything went just as it should. It is amazing though, how much you can find out about people and the bond between man and machine. We had the right vehicle in stock, interest rates were good, trade value was better and the payment was just right. They took delivery and went home happy or so I thought.
Monday and I am at my desk. I look up to see Mom, as she walks into the showroom with her 11 year old son. She points me out to the lad and here he comes. I greeted him with a smile, but he looks very serious for an 11 year old. He inquired, “what’s going to happen to our car?”
This is the family who had told me how much their son loved “The Wagon”. He had his own space in the back that he loved to be in when they traveled. When the next child was born he did not feel displaced because he had his own special place in the wagon that was his alone. He grew up there, safe and secure. I was feeling tremendous pressure all of the sudden.
I looked him straight in the eye and told him that the wagon was going to be gotten ready to be sold to another family. To another family with a little boy who needed his own place to be safe in the wagon. The 11 year old stood very straight and said “thank you”. He then turned and walked back to his mother and they left.
His mom called me a couple of hours later. She explained how upset the boy was because “the wagon” that he had traveled in, slept in & grown up in was not just gone, but more importantly he did not know where his friend was going. She told me that her son wanted to come back to the dealership and ask me. She agreed and brought him down unannounced. She thanked me and said that I was amazing because her son would be honored to share his special place with the next little boy to grow up in, “the wagon”.
I just smiled …for days.
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THE SIGN SAYS IT ALL
The sign above the car lot read. ‘Yes we have cars under a $1,000.00’ No big mystery here, were talking about basic transportation. Not how far or how fast, just it does runs. This is a niche that definitely needs filling again today like it did 20 years ago.
Bob always greeted people with a smile, like a lot of us who are happy to see people wanting to do business. Most everyday he moved a few cars up front to give the lot a fresh look to the people driving by. Some cars had specific parking places as to fit their specific positive attributes, showing the non-dented side to the camera for pictures. The blue station wagon was one such car. It was always parked facing the street, mostly because it had no reverse.
A sunny Saturday on the lot and a couple comes in. They tell Bob that they have very little money and need a car. Bob shows them the blue station wagon. The right size, the right price, let’s see how it drives. Bob gives them a little route to go on and asks them to park in front. After the drive it’s all smiles. Bob inks the customers up and away they drive.
Almost two years go by and Bob is on the lot showing a car to a fresh customer when the people in the blue station wagon show up. “Hi Bob, we’re back” they say with a smile. Being a one man operation, Bob is working between two customers now. So Bob suggest that they take a nice brown sedan for a drive and goes back to the first customer. After a few minutes Bob notices that they are still standing next to the brown sedan. “Go ahead folks, take it for a spin” and goes back to the other customer.
It takes a few minutes for Bob to realize that they are not taking the brown sedan for a drive. So Bob excuses himself from the first customer and goes over to see why they aren’t driving it yet. As Bob walks up to them, they ask, “Could you please pull this out for us, we haven’t backed a car up in a couple of years”.