THE HISTORY OF AMERICA IS THE HISTORY OF THE AUTOMOBILE INDUSTRY— WHICH IS FAR OLDER AND STRANGER THAN YOU MIGHT IMAGINE.
The Ethan Allen Highway, known on maps as Route 7, which starts in Canada, fifty miles below Québec, at the confluence of Hudson Bay and the St. Lawrence Seaway, wanders south in the distracted way you might wander south if you were a bird or an old person in search of boardwalks and palm trees for winter. It goes through five states, runs by rivers and lakes, over mountains, and alongside points of historical interest; becomes, as if desirous of another life, the main street of several picturesque New England towns, including Burlington, Vermont; Pittsfield, Massachusetts; and New Milford, Connecticut, before ending at the on-ramp of Interstate 95, which lifts up the remainder of its traffic and hurries it south in a more direct and brutal way. Route 7 is, in other words, one of the old roads of America, a trail first broadened for horses, and, before that—and if I say probably it’s because I don’t really know—worn by Indians, most on foot, most of these feet in moccasins. It’s instructive to study how such a road begins, which (in this case) is in the wilderness of Champlain, and how such a road ends, which (in this case) is in the knot of car dealerships at the bottom of 7, as, in its journey from north to south and then to now, Route 7 re-creates the journey of the nation. What began in wilderness culminates in showrooms. What began in Indians culminates in salesmen. The car itself, the platonic idea of the car, is really a concrete expression of all that road, its products as well as its creator. We have the roads because we have the cars; we need the cars because we have the roads. (Even in repose, a car implies the freedom of the open road.) It’s impossible to imagine modern American life without the car—fast car, muscle car, roadster, pickup, minivan—just as it’s impossible to imagine the life of the car without imagining the car salesman, sprightly, statistic-spouting go-getter or tired polyester hack, in his fishbowl at the bottom of Route 7.
When I decided to write a story about the salesmen of cars, used and new, it was because I believed the car salesman to be a preacher in the church of the American dream. What is a car salesman if not a cleric who, like a minister or rabbi, sells the vision and moves the product? I believed such a story would be funny, as I would cram it with all the dealership stories I have accumulated in my life of buying and selling and being angry about cars. But as I went along, visiting dealerships, reading articles and books, then watching congressional hearings, the world changed. First gas prices went up, then credit disappeared, then the economy collapsed. (It went down like a camel goes down—first the front, then the ass.) The auto dealerships were hit early and hard. As the papers filled with stories about an industry on the edge of collapse, the salesman suddenly seemed less like a hateful hawker of false promises than like a sad relic. This American character, no less archetypal than the logger or trapper, was dying. (There is blood on the showroom floor!) The cowboy circa 1910, at the closing of the frontier. I went out like Rickles, full of put-downs and zingers, but came back like Cormac McCarthy, a disillusioned man trying to capture an American type as it fades into oblivion.
The history of America is the history of the automobile industry: it starts in fields and garages and ends in boardrooms and dumps; it starts with daredevils and tinkerers and ends with bureaucrats and congressmen; it starts with a sense of here-goes-let’s-hope-it-works and ends with help-help-help. We tend to think of it as an American history that opens, as if summoned by the nature of the age, early in the last century, when the big mills and factories were already spewing smoke above Flint and Detroit, but we tend to be wrong. The history of the car is far older and stranger than you might suppose. Its early life is like the knock-around life one of the stars of the ’80s lived in the ’70s, Stallone before Rocky, say, picking up odd jobs, working the grift, and, of course, porn. The first automobile turned up outside Paris in 1789, when Detroit was an open field. (The hot rod belonged to the Grand Armée before it belonged to Neal and Jack.) It was another of the great innovations that seemed to appear in that age of revolution.
I can show you what that first car looked like: small, and stumpy, and inelegant, but as powerful as a team of horses. It came from the workshop of Philippe Lebon, who with his barrel chest and bad teeth looked not unlike his invention. Lebon, who was a professor at the School of Bridges and Highways in Paris, envisioned his device, which he built in a lab in the manner of Doctor Frankenstein—because what was it going to do if not ravage the countryside and destroy its people?—as an automaton that would lead the French into battle. “It’s born in agony!” Ilya Ehrenburg, the Soviet propagandist, wrote in The Life of the Automobile. “It shreds flesh, blinds eyes, eats lungs, destroys minds.”
An early problem was how it spooked horses, which snorted and fled in terror before its engines—a problem not addressed until 1900, when the designer Uriah Smith attached an imitation horse head to the grille of his “Horseless Horsey Carriage,” which, he believed, would cause the pack animals to register the carriage as “friend.”
Lebon’s engine, which ran on gas, an electric pump, and spark plugs, was oddly similar to what you will find under the hood of a Taurus today. It appeared once in public, in 1815, dragging a cannon to Waterloo. Lebon was dead by then, having been murdered, “by prowlers,” before the ceremony in which Napoleon was crowned emperor.
The life of the automobile resembles the life of an idea, appearing for a moment—and it was late, and we had been drinking—disappearing, then reappearing a hundred years later, at the dawn of the industrial age, first in Mannheim, Germany, where it was the electrified tricycle of Gottlieb Daimler and Carl Benz, then in Paris, where it was the low-slung roadster of Claude Levaser, considered the father of the modern motor car. The first American model was made by mechanics at the Pope bicycle factory in Hartford, Connecticut. Most of the early American car makers were, in fact, bicycle engineers, grease monkeys in coveralls, tools in their waists, sunlight filtered by fair-weather cumulus turning in spokes above. Schwinn himself wanted to get in the game, but was dissuaded by his foolishly sensible partner.
The early shops were scattered around towns in the upper Midwest: Kokomo, Indiana, where Elwood Haynes built the Haynes; Warren, Ohio, where Colonel J. W. Packard built the Packard; Kenosha, Wisconsin, where Thomas Jeffery, who would later invent the windshield, built the Rambler. The engineers who worked in these shops were country boys, sons of farmers or mill runners or merchants, what Marx would call the petite bourgeoisie. These men, inspired by some teacher or book, were remade by their first encounter with the Otto engine, seen on display at an exhibit or fair. Designed by the German engineer Nicolaus Otto in 1801, it was the first internal combustion engine. With it: muscle cars, road songs, drive-through restaurants, smog making the sun green-gold. Without it: horse and buggy forever. In the early 1900s, thousands of engineers, mesmerized by the engine, dreamed of raising money, opening a shop, and building a prototype. Many of the names we associate with the showroom belonged to the engineers of that generation: Ransom Olds, the Dodge brothers, Dave Buick.
Most of these men went into the business because it was exciting, because it was more fun than farming, because you wouldn’t call it work, but some went into it because there was gold in them thar hills! (See Henry Ford.) The first successful American car company was founded by Frank and Charles Duryea, who grew up on a farm in Peoria, Illinois, in the 1880s. The elder brother, Charles, was a wonder, having built a bicycle, without ever having seen a bicycle, when he was fifteen. He traveled, took a job at a bike shop in Brookline, Massachusetts. His kid brother joined him a year later. Around this time, Charles read an article in a scientific journal about the Otto, so he decided to build a car. He started in 1892. By the middle of 1893, Frank was driving a prototype through Boston. It was little more than a horse buggy rigged to an Otto, which grunted and groaned and spewed great clouds of smoke. Frank Duryea won the first car race held in America, on a horse track in western Massachusetts, dust coming down like rain. He used the prize, two thousand dollars, to open a factory where he made his first for-sale model, which he called the Buggynaut.
Racing played a major role in the development of the industry. The early emphasis placed on time trials is probably why, even now, in these chastened, end-of-the-world times, car makers still advertise their cars’ power and speed, though the speeds advertised are speeds you want to reach only if being chased by terrorists. By 1905, tracks, straight and curved, had sprung up across the country, where every weekend the pioneers of the industry, designers and test pilots, ran their machines. It was on the steep banked track in Ann Arbor, Michigan, that Henry Ford made his name.
He was a farm boy, the best and worst of the old America. Full of innovation, also full of hate. He pioneered the assembly line, the modern factory, and the entire notion of a blue-collar middle class, but also hated the Jews, the bankers because they were Jews, the Europeans because they were bankers and Jews. When Ford was eighteen, working in the Eagle Iron Works in Detroit, he saw his first Otto. It changed everything. I mean, if it could go without being pushed, then the whole world could be dragged in its wake. It’s hard to know exactly when Ford built his first car, mostly because Ford himself, in an effort to place himself among the pioneers, lied about the date. His first car, which was steam powered, was probably built in 1901, a decade after Duryea built the Buggynaut. But by 1903, Ford had become a player, having designed a car with the specific purpose of beating Alexander Winton, the Scotch-born designer of the Phaeton, the Ferrari of its day. (In his first year in business, Winton made two Phaetons and sold just one, which was returned.) Winton, in goggles and leather cap, his face windburned and dour, leather coat tight over shirt and tie, piloted his own car, proportioned like a smoke, front wheels rising above its hood. At the end of each race, he stood with the runners-up, tossing back a tumbler of highland whiskey.
The race was held on a track in Ann Arbor. The bleachers were filled with people who, from a distance, were a wash of color. Winton took an early lead, kept it and added to it, and was pulling away when one of the tangle of tubes in his engine opened and fluid spilled onto the dirt. The crowd howled as the Phaeton slowed, and Winton stood watching Ford go on to the finish line.
Ford, dismissing his own victory as a fluke—anyone can break down—challenged Winton to a rematch, held on the same track a few months later. Ford built a new car for the race, named 999, after a famous New York Central locomotive. It was the fastest car ever made—so fast that Ford himself balked at driving it (in the books, the word used is scared), instead hiring, at the suggestion of a friend, Barney Oldfield, a daredevil bike rider who, though he had never driven a car, was described as the sort of man who would try anything. You know Barney—he’s absolutely nuts! Oldfield came to the shop and walked around the car, which with its exposed engine and coiled wires looked as purposeful as a hammer. Then he said, “Yes.” Well, it was actually more storybook than that. According to Get a Horse! by M. M. Musselman, a fantastic social history—written in 1950, it shows, on its back cover, a picture of the author at the wheel of a Stutz Bearcat, which he describes as “a car that college boys dreamed about with the same devotion that they dreamed of Bebe Daniels and Norma Talmadge”—Oldfield told Ford, “This damn thing may kill me but the records will show I was going like hell when it did.” Oldfield, who retired from racing in 1917 but did not stop talking about the 999 until 1971, won the three-mile race by half a mile.
The following week, Ford sat with a roomful of (Jewish) bankers, who, based on the feats of the 999, put up twenty-eight thousand dollars, with which Ford built his factory. By the end of 1903, he was putting out the Model A, which, at twenty-five hundred dollars a pop, was marketed, like every other car, to the moneyed elite. In 1906, he told his engineers to scrap the Model A, and all other cars on the line, and focus on a single product, the Model T, which would cost eight hundred and sixty dollars. The first car made for the middle class, the Model T was simple and sturdy and, amazingly, ran on a flex engine—it would go on gasoline, ethanol, and just about anything else strong enough to give you a buzz.
Four cars were registered in the United States in 1895. By 1916, 3,376,889 had been registered, a variety of makes and models almost impossible to imagine, a diversity like the animals roaming on the savannah, from the lion crashing through the bush to the wet-eyed tree frog glaring from a cool place under the eucalyptus. In 1915, Ford began selling cars on installment plans, the dawn of a credit revolution that would stretch and bend and distort the dollar until, fifteen years later, it collapsed, exhausted. Between 1900 and 1915, more than a thousand different kinds of cars were made in America. The names of these cars are nostalgic and strange, like the names on sunken clipper ships. There were so many, each representing some lost memory, and it was summer, and the pier lights played on the lake: the Pierce Arrow, the Thomas Flyer, the Pope-Hartford Columbia, the Marmon, first of the needlessly fast cars (it won the original Indianapolis 500), the Apperson Jack Rabbit, the Franklin, the Hudson Super Six, which came in candy colors and advertised its “torpedo body,” the Matheson, the Elmore Two-Cycle, the Locomobile, the Peerless, the twelve-passenger Stanley Mountain Wagon. It carried a $2,300 sticker price, which did not include accessories, such as kerosene headlamps for night operation or a foul-weather apron, a tarp with a hole that your head stuck through.
If you wanted to buy a car, you had to decide, in addition to choosing a color and interior, what you wanted your car to run on: gasoline, ethanol, acetylene, liquid air, compressed air, carbonic acid, electricity, steam. In the early years, the most popular cars were powered by kerosene-generated steam, the tailpipe sending up a plume of vapor. Steam, because steam had driven the railroads, factories, warships. Men had long tried to free the locomotive from its tracks, to give it a kind of free will. Hence: Locomobile. The pioneers were the Stanley brothers, identical twins who dressed alike and groomed alike, in identical frock coats and scraggly, House of David beards—for what were these brothers if not priests of a new faith whose eternal flame was the blast furnace? (The Stanleys fought all the time, by the way, workers looking away uncomfortably as curses rang through the factory.) The brothers, who had already made a fortune in photography with the invention of a kind of dry plate, saw their first car, an old-time steam buggy, at a fair in Brockton, Massachusetts.
Within a few years, the brothers were mass-producing the Stanley Steamer, the Locomobile, and the Stanley Touring Wagon, which the New York Times described as “a freak machine, tapering down to a sharp point at each end, like the shape of a cigar.”
Steam was better than oil in almost every way. Smooth, powerful, clean, quiet. By 1915, dozens of makes of steam car had reached the market—the Toledo, the Ross, the Tractobile, the Knox Waterless, the Reo, the Prescott, the Lane—each targeted to a particular buyer: family man, working man, farmer, swell. The Stanleys, who refused to advertise, because it seemed graspy and small, displayed their product on the track at Daytona Beach, Florida, where pioneers were racing machines as far back as 1903, when Ransom Olds made the first timed run. The drivers, who raced on the sand near the water, began nine miles down the beach and were running full speed when they crossed the starting line. People in the bleachers heard the whine of engines, then saw a car trailed by sand, then WHOOOSH, it had passed by, the timekeeper holding a stopwatch in the air. Damn, look what this boy has done!
The Stanleys set records—a mile a minute, two miles a minute, a hundred and forty miles per hour flat out—in 1907, in 1908, in 1909. (Musselman recalls a rumor from his childhood in Chicago: if anyone could run a Stanley wide-open for six seconds, they would get a free car.) In 1910, a Stanley driver, trying to best his own record from a year before, set his engine pressure at 1,300 pounds. He crossed the starting line going faster than anyone had ever seen. A half mile into the course, his wheels caught a lip of sand and the car was launched. It traveled a hundred feet through the air—even the man who falls out of the building thinks, for a moment, that he is flying—coming down on its side. There was a moment of quiet, a sort of awwww, then steam blasted through the engine, sending the vehicle skittering down the beach like a popped balloon. The driver was thrown, ribs broken, eye—left, I think—knocked out of its socket. (A doctor who was in the bleachers was able to jam it back into place.) The wreck at Daytona prefigured the demise of Stanley Steamer. The brothers never entered another race. For them, the fun was gone. A few years later, when Ralph Stanley died, Carter sold the company to a group of Chicago businessmen who did to Stanley Steamer what groups of Chicago businessmen do to whatever they touch. The last Stanley Steamer was made in 1927.
After steam, the Wall Street money was on electric cars, which, by 1910, looked to be the future of everything that glowed and popped. This was the age of Tom Edison, the electric light and electric chair, transformers burning on the edge of every town.
Here is what a car powered by electricity—the first prototype built by William Morris, a handyman from Des Moines, Iowa, in 1891—had over a car powered by gasoline: when you were done driving an electric car, you were not covered in soot stains and grime; nor was the car loud and belchy; nor was it prone to backfire; nor did it jiggle you as it ran; nor did you need to turn a crank to get it started, which, especially on cold days, was hard work, and so a problem for weak men, old folks, and the ladies. As a result of this last fact, the electric car became the preferred horseless vehicle of women. Here is what Iain Carson and Vijay Vaitheeswaran say in Zoom: The Global Race to Fuel the Car of the Future: 90 percent of cars registered in America in the early years of automobiling were electric. Here is what they do not say: almost all these cars were used by women, either hansom cabs that ferried ladies through big cities, or stately, slow-moving roadsters that came to reflect the tastes of their market. “The electric coupe took on a dainty, interior-decorated look,” writes Musselman. “It developed curved, plateglass windows, fawn or burgundy colored broadcloth upholstery, ruffled silk curtains, vanity compartments and bud vases.” The failure of the electric car, in the years that were decisive, was, in other words, a result neither of a conspiracy of oil companies or of Detroit—it was a catastrophic failure of niche marketing. By 1910, the electric car was being advertised to just one kind of customer. “The average man,” writes Musselman, “would rather walk down the street without his pants than drive an electric coupe.” The strategy worked—a lot of cars were sold—until 1912, when Ford invented the automatic starter, meaning the gasoline car could be turned on with a key, meaning women could get in and go, meaning families, instead of burning two kinds of fuel, and buying two kinds of cars, could burn just one. In this way, our age became the age of the garage suicide, the petro dollar, the smog storm, the OPEC embargo, and the resource war.
The automobile made its debut in American pop culture in 1902, in the play Beauty and the Beast, at the end of which the villain tries to escape in a car but breaks down. In the Broadway show Six-Cylinder Love, staged in 1921, a young couple falls in with a fast-motoring crowd and nearly loses everything. What would you give to run a six-cylinder Ford through a cool autumn night? By then, America was crawling with cars. It was like one of those Saul Steinberg illustrations: a broad highway crowded with coupes and roadsters and motorcycles with sidecars, a sea of steel and chrome, sinister cartoon women blurred by speed. In the course of twenty years, the car had remade the country. In physical ways, of course. The landscape had been refashioned in the image of the car: the numbered roads, the motels and diners and drive-in theaters, even the buildings, the skyscrapers with their turned edges and grille-like facades, were made to look like the car, the Chrysler building being the most obvious example. But the car had remade the nation in other, more profound ways. The modern age was really the auto age. The car changed the pace of life, compressed action and thought. It moved us into warp speed.
In describing this new energy, which is the subject of his odd masterpiece, My Pilgrim’s Progress, George Trow quotes Alfred Sloan, who built General Motors:
The Pontchartrain [hotel in Detroit] was where motorcar gossip was heard first… New models customarily had debuts there. As word spread that so and so’s new Whizzer was parked at the curbstone, the crowd would flock outside to appraise the new rival of all existing cars. Even on ordinary days, when the crowd thinned out of the dining room, the tablecloth would be covered with sketches: crankshafts, chassis, details of motor wheels and all sorts of mechanisms.
“You have to understand that that energy was new,” says Trow.
The Whizzer, the idea of the Whizzer, was new.… We are talking of a period here just before the First World War, when the automobile was only ten years old. The process that would accelerate so disastrously during the 1920s was beginning, and Sloan had seen it begin. Sloan was a horse and buggy boy. He remembered the slow America. He remembered patriarchichal forms, and although he would have seen a certain amount of speed in the older industries, among railroad men and so forth, this particular kind of urban buzz, reflected so beautifully in his choice of the name Whizzer, was new, and destined to win. When we talk about the Pontchartrain hotel in 1910 or 1912, we are talking about the beginning of television, we’re talking about a new energy forming.
By then, Detroit had become the mecca of the automobile industry. Here’s how it happened: Ransom Olds, the great car man of the day, after being rejected by bankers in several cities, including Newark, New Jersey, met with businessmen in Detroit, which then had a population of two thousand. These men agreed to loan money to Olds on the condition that he build his factory in town. As Oldsmobile prospered, Olds hired the most talented engineers in the country, who then, through the quality of their work, attracted still more engineers, many of whom, after a few years’ service at Oldsmobile, raised money and built prototypes and factories of their own. The Dodge brothers. Charlie Nash. Louis Chevrolet. Detroit became a one-industry town in just the way Hollywood became a one-industry town: striver drew striver, success drew success. Then, in lean times, when the small shops suffered, the big shops went around buying up the competition, until only the giants—Ford, Chrysler, GM—remained. Not because they made the best cars—they did not—but because they had the most money, the biggest networks, the best dealers, the choicest lobbyists, which allowed them to survive the shocks that winnowed the industry: in 1907, when the failure of the Knickerbocker Bank in New York caused a panic that swallowed credit; in 1919, when the postwar recession made the automobile seem like an outlandish luxury; in the 1920s, when the boom enriched the big companies but swamped dozens of small ones, many then purchased by Alfred Sloan for a song. The industry that emerged from each upheaval was bigger and smaller, with fewer, fatter producers offering ever-less variety—“There is no longer a choice between right and left drive,” Musselman complained in 1952, “between three or four cylinders, gear or friction transmission, chain or shaft drive, under-slung or overhung chassis, rear or side doors, two or four cycles, self-generating acetylene, or Prest-o-Lite illumination.” By the end of the Second World War, you had the American car industry as we have it today, three behemoths struggling under their own weight, run not by inventors or builders, neither by the sons of the inventors or builders, but by managers hired by the sons of the sons of inventors and builders, each committed mostly to his own survival.
The history of the car salesman is shorter than the history of the car, but perhaps by no more than a few weeks. (The invention of the car was only slightly more significant than the invention of the market for cars.) In fact, we have a fairly good idea of who that first car salesman was: John North Willys, the owner of a sporting-goods shop in Elmira, New York, typical of the new breed of American man: big ideas, big schemes, big future, big hands spread wide to demonstrate the size of the fish he intended to catch. Willys saw his first car—a Winton Phaeton—on a trip to Cleveland, Ohio, in 1900. He thought about the car all the way home on the train. He then saw his second car, a Pierce Motorette, a slim body on bicycle wheels. He talked to the owner of the car, then got on a train for Buffalo, where he met the builder of the Motorette, Lane Pierce, in his bicycle store.
Pierce said he was only experimenting with automobiles—the car Willys had seen was, in fact, the only car Pierce had built. Willys made a deal with Pierce whereby he would purchase as many cars as Pierce could manufacture and sell them in Elmira. Willys sold two in 1901, four in 1902, and twenty in 1903. By then, Willys had gone to Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he made a similar deal with Thomas Jeffrey, who made the Rambler. By 1905, Willys had cleared the bats and sleds out of his shop, making way for the first car dealership, that dreamland where new models roll out with fanfare.
Willys’s competition came from the big department stores—Wanamaker’s, Sears, Macy’s—the managers of which believed, in the early years, they could sell cars the way they sold farm tools and prefab houses. Here is how E. B. White began his story “Farewell, My Lovely!”: “I see by the new Sears Roebuck catalogue that it is still possible to buy an axle for a 1909 Model T Ford.…” But in the long run, the department stores didn’t have a future in cars because they did not have the showrooms, body shops, or loading bays filled with grease monkeys, nor the financing sheds, experts, salesmen, waiting areas with mints and magazines—the most popular trade publication of the day was The Horseless Age. The future was the system devised by Willys, whereby a fleet of cars is funneled through a network of dealerships, each controlled by a particular family and passed father to son in the manner of a medieval duchy. There are more than twenty thousand American car dealers today—far too many, say the experts—their existence, as well as their geographical location and that of their fellow car salesmen, carefully circumscribed by law.
Within a decade of Willys’s trip to Cleveland, the car salesman—because he was pushy and forgot to include in his “price” extras like crank handles and rain tarps—was considered disreputable, so much so that the New York Times ran articles defending the car salesman, calling for his reform, and suggesting he had been reformed already.
The following was published in the New York Times (“Selling Motor Cars Is Now Dignified”) in 1912:
The method of the itinerant medicine doctor and circus man to secure publicity and attract the crowd’s attention [to car sales] has disappeared almost altogether…. Show girls in show cars are not wanted nowadays. Exhibitors used to think they could not sell cars unless they had three or four attractive young women sit in their cars by the hour and gaze with a baby stare on their faces at the passing crowd.
All of this was, however, the early version of the car salesman—a villain, yes, but a villain in a silent movie, peering through his monocle as he twirls his imperial mustache and talks you into buying a fully loaded Pugs-Finch you can’t afford. But what about the car salesman as we know him today from late-night commercials, literature, film, and our own bitter experience? That is, the car salesman of the modern age, when the tricks and routines have become standardized and perfected for the masses. Did he emerge slowly over time as the character of an epoch might emerge? No, say scholars (and there are scholars): he emerged all at once, fully formed, in the course of a season, with teeth and nails. Simply put, the modern car salesman, who did not exist in the summer of 1919, did exist in the winter of 1920, minted by the Depression that followed the First World War.
In 1918, Henry Ford, to buy out his partners, borrowed a large sum of money from the New York banks, which he planned to pay back with the gross of a few good months. But there were no good months after the armistice. Everything fell apart. Sales dwindled, money went out the door, creditors circled. If Ford defaulted, the banks would assume a share in his company, which meant he would have new partners: Jews! He decided to take cruel advantage of the arrangement he had made with his dealers: in most cases, a dealer paid the manufacturer upon the sale of a car, but Ford dealers paid on delivery. This had not been a problem before 1919, as the Fords always sold, but nothing moved after the war. As other factories laid off workers, Ford told his men to speed up the belts. Cars left in a line, a parade of Model Ts snaking through the recession-stilled streets, shipment after shipment delivered to dealers who were ordered to pay cash, which Ford used to pay back the banks. Asked why he was hurting his own dealers, who were swamped with inventory, Ford said, “I made them rich, now it’s their turn to help me.”
Many went out of business, but those who survived, survived as fierce, hard-sell shops. It was the beginning of a new age—the age of the car salesman. Gone was the aficionado, and in his place came the closer, who did not know or care about the Otto engine or crankshaft or automatic starter. Money, sales, volume—those were his things. Many of the techniques still used on the lot—the bait and switch, the bump-up, the turnover—were pioneered in this era.
On October 4, 2008, James Thorpe walked into a Dodge dealership in Richardson, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. He went through the showroom looking at sports cars and wagons, but paid special attention to the trucks—the 2007 Dodge Ram, say, which, on the dealership website, is pictured beside the sea, or the Dodge Dakota, which is pictured at various angles, as if shot by Richard Avedon. Thorpe spoke to a salesman named John Phinney—Thorpe had purchased a car from Phinney previously, which might (or might not) explain everything. After looking at several trucks, he asked for a test drive. The men went out the entrance of the dealership, turned left on South Central Highway, going away from President George Bush Highway, which is a toll road. They passed the Richardson Heights Shopping Center, went under the LBJ Freeway (no toll), and were near the Royal Oaks Country Club when the passenger door opened and the salesman was pushed out. He was found hours later, dead by the side of the road. Thorpe was arrested the next morning.
A reporter from Dallas News 8 interviewed Thorpe in jail. He said Phinney had not been pushed but had jumped. This happened, according to Thorpe, immediately after Thorpe identified himself as the antichrist, saying, “Repent now if you want to save your soul.”
“What happened to Jack was he had all of his [expletive] cards in the wrong [expletive] deck,” said Thorpe. “They were under the table. It wasn’t my doing. I didn’t cause a [expletive] thing. All I did was buy one car from him and went back to buy a second one. I was good to that man. I made him a good commission. I was a car salesman myself. I know I was good to that man.”
My father is a negotiator. That’s his job. Really. When I was a kid, he wrote a book called You Can Negotiate Anything, which opened with the line “Your real world is a giant negotiating table.” A few years ago, he wrote another book called Negotiate This!, which, like his first, includes tips and techniques on how to get what might otherwise seem un-gettable. (The subtitle of his first book is “How to Get What You Want.”) Included in both books are humorous stories about buying cars: about dealerships and sticker prices and accessories and financing, but mostly about salesmen, for, to my father, the car salesman is the art of the deal expressed in the form of a single human will. For this reason, and because he wanted me, his son, to be wised up and smart and not a bum, he used to take me with him when he went shopping for a new car, which was every three years, as sure as the turning of the earth. He put me twenty-four inches behind his left hand—for in his right was the cigar, and I had already been burned—saying, “Watch what I do. And pay attention to this guy.”
In my early years, between the ages of seven and fourteen, this meant a trip to Steve Foley Cadillac on Skokie Highway, in Northbrook, Illinois, which I loved, as the showroom of Foley Cadillac, unlike the shabby, product-stuffed showrooms of today, was glamour and glitz, with each new Cadillac raised on a white pedestal, where it seemed to drift, as in a cloud, above the everyday world. At some point, though, I would slip away from my father and the back-and-forth taking place in the office that salesmen, as I later learned, call “the pit,” or “the hole,” and wander among the Cadillacs, slide behind the huge steering wheels, breathe deep the new-car smell, play with the 8-track and cruise control. I look back on those occasions as Adam in his later years must have looked back on his lazy days of doing nothing and wanting nothing to do in the Garden.
I remember the evening we drove home in the sedan DeVille—it was huge and white, and the interior was red leather, and children giggled behind us in the street as girls once giggled by the wells of Midian. We were like Vikings returning with a terrific bounty—leather seats, yes, deep, soft shocks, yes, but also shag, and electric windows, and cruise control, and Sinatra on the 8-track, belting out “Nice and Easy.”
We’re on the road to romance—that’s safe to say
But let’s make all the stops along the way
When we stopped, and that car stopped slow, friends and neighbors piled in, it seemed like hundreds of people, but there was still room to sit and look at the treetops and say, “Yes!” In the armrest beneath each window was an electric lighter, which, counting the lighter on the dash, made five, meaning that five men could simultaneously light five cigars in five corners of this giant vehicle—the accessory of accessories, thrown in gratis because my father had deployed a technique, chronicled in his book, called “the nibble,” whereby, after absorbing many hours of a salesman’s time, thus elevating (to the salesman) the importance of this particular sale, my father said, “And I expect you to throw in the four-door cigarette-lighter option.”
(Car salesmen, I later learned, call men like my father “grinders.”)
On a different occasion, and now I was older, and it was the ’80s, and my hair was combed into a tail in back, my father got into a drawn-out back-and-forth with one of Foley’s henchmen. In the end, it came down to the cost of Rust-Oleum, which my father thought should be included.
“It’s the principle.”
That’s what he kept saying.
“But it’s just twenty dollars,” said the salesman. “Are you going to let this car go for twenty dollars?”
“Well, right,” said my father. “But it’s my twenty dollars.”
“It’s impossible,” said the salesman. “It would be easier for me to give you twenty dollars from my own pocket—that’s how hard this is.”
“Oh,” said my father. “I guess I didn’t realize that.”
And the negotiation went on. Then, an hour later, as my father was about to sign the papers, he hesitated, pen in hand, looked up, and said to the salesman, “OK, let’s have that twenty dollars.”
“What twenty dollars?”
“For the Rust-Oleum. The money you said you would rather pay from your own pocket.”
The salesman hesitated, stared, said, “Really?”
“Yes, really,” said my father. “Let’s have it.”
The salesman reached back, pulled out his wallet, reached in, pulled out a twenty—doing all of this very slow, as if in stop-action, waiting for my father to say “Kidding,” but my father never did say “Kidding.” Instead he took the bill, folded it neatly, put it in his jacket pocket, and signed the forms.
A few years later, he brought me to buy my first car. This was done as I imagine fathers in other, exotic, more interesting cultures bring their sons for that first trip to the whorehouse. I did not go to the Cadillac dealer, of course, but to the used-Honda lot a few miles down Skokie Highway. Did my father stand a foot behind me as I made this deal, nodding, frowning, monitoring? Of course he did. I narrowed the field to a 1984 Honda Civic, a hideous fishbowl of a car. It scored well in twenty of the twenty-three categories on the checklist my father had given me, hand-printed in all-caps. As I was talking numbers, eating up time, preparing “the nibble,” my father called me aside. We stood under the streetlamp, lit to dispel the midwinter Chicago gloom, as traffic whistled past.
“Are you sure this is the right car?” he asked.
“It’s got everything we talked about,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, “but did you see all that writing?”
On the passenger door, in red cursive, it said, “Billy.” On the driver door, in green cursive, it said, “Bobbie.” On the hood, in orange cursive, it said, “Chuck.”
“No big deal,” I said. “We’ll have it painted over.”
“You’re missing the point,” he told me. “A schmuck owned this car.”
As I said, my father told me to pay special attention to car salesmen, as to him the car salesman was the personification of capitalism and the pure expression of the market. As a result, I have made a lifelong study of the sellers of cars, have haunted the lots, have wandered glassy-eyed and stoned through the showrooms. Look at this sea of cars! Each is my dream! Each will carry me to the good life! Look at this car salesman, dig him in all his finery, he stands at the gate of the dealership like old Saint Peter, posing a kind of riddle or test—solve him and the highway is yours! But it’s wrong to say everything I know I know from field study. The fact is, I have done a tremendous amount of library research, have watched movies and read books, paying special attention, for example, to a multipart story that ran on Edmunds.com, in which the reporter Philip Reed spent three months working undercover as a car salesman in Southern California. Particularly telling was the advice given to Reed by his editor at the outset of the project. When applying for a job, said the editor, don’t tell them you want it because you love cars, or know cars—tell them you’re there because you want to make a lot of money. That will get you the job. And it did get him the job. Again and again.
Here’s what Reed learned: everything done and said by a car salesman—the test drive, the patter about city mileage versus country, the talk about air bags and safety—is simply an effort to get the buyer into the room where my father went back and forth at Foley Cadillac. Everything said before the room is like the forgettable small talk around the keg at the frat party—upstairs, in the room, with the lights out, that’s where the true artist, otherwise known as the closer, is revealed.
The room is bugged—know that. A manager in back is eating a sandwich as he listens to every word you say. When a salesman excuses himself to use the bathroom, he is really going to talk to this manager: get orders, execute a plan. At the beginning of the process, the salesman takes out a piece of paper divided into boxes. This is called a four-square. He writes a number in each box: the price of the car, what you will get for your trade-in, the amount you will put down, the amount you’ll pay each month if financing, which you probably are. “[The manager] stressed the price of the car should be written in large clear numbers to give it a feeling of authority,” writes Reed. “He added we should always write ‘+ fees’ next to the price of the car…. Good penmanship is essential,” he said. “This makes it harder for them to negotiate.”
The four-square works the same way the rabbit from the hat works—as you look here, at cost per month, the magic is happening there, in the box showing the money you will be paid for your old car. Doing well in this box, yes, but getting crushed over there. That’s how magic works.
The salesman asks, “Do you have a trade-in?”
You say, “Yes.”
He says, “Great. Give me the keys. Our guys will look it over.”
Later, when you say, “I’m out of here,” the salesman says, “We can’t seem to find your keys—give us a few minutes to look,” which is when they turn you over to the closer.
Here is what the closer asks: “What do you want to pay a month?”
Here is what you should say: “Nothing.”
Here is what you do say: “Three-fifty.”
Here is what he says: “Up to what?”
You should say: “Three-fifty.”
You do say: “Four hundred.”
“Everybody says three fifty. I don’t know why, that’s just what everybody says,” writes Reed. “Then the salesman says, ‘Up to?’ Then the customer says, ‘Four hundred.’ It never fails.…”
(Salesmen call this “bumping up.”)
In this way, you raise your opening offer—the actual vehicle price, hidden in box four—by thousands of dollars before (you think) the negotiation has even begun. In reality, and you would know this if you had read You Can Negotiate Anything, the negotiation began the moment you walked onto the lot. As I said, it’s magic: look at this hand while that hand robs you blind, but none of this matters if you cannot get the ready buyers onto the lot, which, as you probably know, is the situation today.
The following sentence appeared in the New York Times on December 3, 2008: “Vehicle sales in the United States sank 36.7 percent in November to the lowest rate in 26 years, as the dour economy and tight credit markets made for another lonely month at dealerships… General Motors, down 41.3 percent, Ford Motor down 30.5 percent, Chrysler down 47.1 percent.…” A second story sang of the CEOs of the Big Three, each, in making his case for a government bailout, journeying to the capital in a state-of-the-art hybrid: Rick Wagoner of GM in a Malibu, Alan Mulally of Ford in an Escape, Robert Nardelli of Chrysler in an Aspen—road trips that stand on the other side of the long history of the American car industry from the trips taken in the early, crank-start days by attention freaks hoping to promote the usefulness of this untrusted new machine.
Inferred from the statistics is the troubled state of the American car salesman, thousands of men in thousands of showrooms that descend from John Willys of Elmira. In many towns, the dealership is an institution in the way of the church, a well-lit place that promises a path to a better life. Standing before BMW in Peoria, Illinois, you might, for example, feel as Gimpel the Fool feels when he says, “If not in this life, then the next.” The dealer is the priest, the salesmen his choirboys, in red jackets and white shoes and plastic hair, who once, when the faith was strong, stood at the center of the world—owning a Cadillac dealership in 1966 was the same as living the American dream—but now stand marginalized, whipsawed by change. First the gas embargo, then the flood of cars from Japan, then the fear of melting and the mania for hybrids. Last summer, the industry was hit by a combination punch: the spike of gasoline prices, which chased customers from SUVs and trucks, where dealers made most of their money, then the disappearance of credit, which meant even the people who wanted to buy an SUV or a truck couldn’t afford to. You get hit in the stomach, double over, and here comes the uppercut.
Last fall, I began to stop by the dealerships crowded at the bottom of Route 7 to look in on the salesmen and get a sense of the scene. I went to Chevrolet Buick in Wilton, parked, went into the showroom. Here’s an indicator economists should study as they study GDP: speed with which, upon entering a store, you are surrounded by salesmen. (I would record both gather-rate—in fractions of a second—and density.) I was approached by the first salesman as I came in the door, picked up another as I went by the reception desk, picked up a third as I skirted a Buick Enclave. I looked back when I reached the Corvettes. There must have been ten salesmen back there and more coming, spilling out of offices and break rooms like police cruisers appearing from side streets to chase Burt Reynolds in Smokey and the Bandit. We moved in a buzzing cloud around the Corvette. From a distance, we would have made a fine subject for a painting in the National Gallery: Salesmen and Commission; or, Depression and Its Discontents. When I stood and stared and pretended to think, they stood back and stared and pretended to think. “You know, it’s not so expensive if you realize you’re buying it over the course of three years.”
I went to the Nissan dealer in Ridgefield, where they had a vintage Mazda RX7 on display, signs saying, do not touch, like an exhibit of our last sour national mood, in the late ’70s, when we fretted about the hostages and inflation and told our parents, “Screw you, you’ll never understand our music,” and stayed in our room for a week.
I went to the BMW dealer in Ridgefield, where the salesmen seemed calm and thoughtful and the panic was there, but in a kind of narcotic slow motion: We’re… all… going… to… die.… I took a 2008 wagon for a test drive, speeding up Route 7 in the rain, watching the hills shift and roll on the horizon.
I went by the Porsche dealer because: Porsche! It’s a small store tucked into the armpit of the Danbury Fair mall. I was looking at the banana-pop yellow Boxster S Porsche Design Edition 2, its cockpit full of dials, but, by some instinct, the salesman pegged me for a minivan, so we spent most of our time talking over the hood of the Cayenne, a fantastic car. The salesman told me the kids who used to come in with crazy Wall Street money are gone now. He said this as if with relief, as one minivan driver might say to another: “Finally, some peace and quiet.” But you could tell that’s not how he felt—not really.
Then began a melancholy run from dealership to dealership—Georgetown Subaru in Norwalk, to Pamby Jeep in Ridgefield, to Colonial Mazda in Danbury—all crowded on Route 7, all filled with idle salesmen, each in a lie, each ready to break surface at the shadow of a fly. It’s not just the ups and downs of oil prices, or the scarcity of credit, or the state of the economy. The fact is, the car salesman, as a type, hit by shock after shock, has been in decline for a generation. There is, for example, the challenge posed by the profusion of information, long controlled by the car dealer, suddenly available to any fool with a computer. (As Herb Cohen says, “Information is power.”) On Edmunds and Consumer Reports a buyer can find out the actual cost of a car. With this number, a consumer, if he has the time and fortitude, can then wander lot to lot, driving the price ever closer to cost, cutting into what had been the reservoir of commissions that allowed the salesmen to join the country club, drink Belvedere martinis, cover his fingers with the sort of rings that, in a fight, open a cut beneath some poor bastard’s eye. As I said, the car salesman is a magician, working on the ignorance of the consumer. He knows and you don’t, and that’s been the whole story. But he now finds himself in the position of a magician working to a wised-up crowd that knows and has seen. A magician can still work under such circumstances, but he must be an artist.
What does the demise of the car salesman mean?
It means the death of another of our types, mythological figures who represent some quality suddenly on the point of vanishing. The end of the trapper was the end of the profusion and variety of wildlife that filled our wilderness. The end of the logger was the decimation of the old-growth forests that filled our continent. The end of the cowboy was the closing of the frontier. The end of the car salesman is the end of the auto age known to Henry Ford and Alexander Winton and Barney Oldfield, where farm boys lay beneath engines in ratty bike shops, saying, “All right, wind her out.” The car salesman was a product of that age but also its creator. Henry Ford made the car, but John Willys made the market for the car, which was equally as important. The history of the nation is a parallel history, the side-by-side tracking of product and market. For this reason, the great car salesmen who came of age following the First World War were just as influential as the great inventors who came of age a generation before. As the man on the commercial for Celozzi-Edelson Chevrolet said, “I must be insane selling these cars at these prices!”
I went to Stratford to talk to Chris Curran, who owns two dealerships off Route 95: Volkswagen (Stratford) and Cadillac (Westport). Curran—he’s in his mid-fifties—started at the dealership in Westport, then owned by his father, when he was fourteen. We talked in his office off the showroom. I cannot be precise as to what he looked like. When I try to conjure him, I see only the generic face of the salesman, which, in my mind, is about as distinct as the face on the deutsche mark. I can tell you how he dressed: super casual, in cotton and fleece. With us was Jim Fleming of the National Automobile Dealers Association. Now and then, Fleming said something like “Why don’t you explain all the regulations you have to be in line with, Chris, and how expensive that is?” He was there to make the case for the dealers in these hard times. “I got everything I own in this business,” Curran told me. “That’s what makes the franchise system so good. We’re all individual people with our life invested in it.” When I asked about the current state of business, he shrugged, as if to say, “Not as bad as you think.” (Curran needs to sell five to six hundred cars to have a good year.) He then tried to explain the industry’s near-fatal addiction to SUVs and trucks. “A small fuel-efficient car is the least expensive to buy and the most expensive to engineer, so the least profitable,” he said. “On the other hand, big cars, particularly trucks, which have different regulations, are the most profitable. And the best-sellers. If you looked at the top ten vehicles in the United States for the last twenty years, seven out of the top ten were trucks.”
This led to talk of the old days, when new cars were like celebrities, each model brought onto the lot under a dropcloth—“We used to cover the showroom windows with newspaper”—so no one could see in until after the debut, which came in a grand ceremony somewhere like Times Square, where new cars were introduced by what Curran described as “name actors,” meaning celebrities of the old sort, with names like Burt (Reynolds), Lee (Majors), and Paul Michael (Glaser), each associated with a particular car, blessing the DeVilles and Coupes as an old saint might bless a flock of animals, saying, “Now go forth, enrich, prosper, multiply, and live, damn you—live!”
The leaders of the industry, even the successful leaders, like Chris Curran, whose dealerships regularly rank among the most successful, have an air of defeat, melancholy, or too-lateness about them. They’re like the governors of far-flung British colonies in 1947. Yes, they wake early; yes, they make tea, and shave, and press their uniforms, and fly the Union Jack, because they are soldiers and this is Britain, but they can feel it going away, flowing out like an ebb tide.
“When gas hit four bucks the business model changed overnight,” Curran told me. “People who were buying big SUVs and trucks were now thinking, Do I really need this? It’s nice, but it’s costing me $120 to fill. Demand for big cars dropped off the map. Then, just when gas starts to come down, the financial crisis hits.”
I asked how a car salesman operates in such conditions.
“The selling process is the same,” said Curran. “It’s always been the same, and it always will be the same. There is a fundamental, specific way to handle each sale. Studies have shown the average salesman will sell two cars to every ten people they handle if they follow the steps. It’s like hitting a baseball. If you do the steps consistently, you’re going to hit .250 to .300. If you’re really good, you will hit over .300. If you hit .400 or .500, you’re in the hall of fame.
“Look at my computer,” said Curran. “Each name is a customer, each customer is a number, each number is tracked. It’s called CRM: customer relations management. We track every phone call, every Internet lead, every email—tracked, counted, analyzed. We know every customer who walks in, know what was said, what was done. We’re very high-tech. It’s no more just put a guy out there and if you see someone, say hi. There’s a process. First approach. Then we do what we call investigation. Find out what brought you here: Are you looking for anything specific? Have you been in before? Where do you live? Where do you work? Is this car for you or for your wife? What do you drive now? What don’t you like? We want to spend a good twenty minutes before we show anything. If you just moved to Connecticut from the city, got three kids, have a minivan, live in Ridgefield, that tells me something.”
Curran hit a button. Two faces appeared on-screen, photos scanned from the driver’s licenses shown before a test drive—a doughy, dour-faced young couple, each seemingly weighed down by an amount of worry tragic for their years. (Of course, the pictures were taken at the DMV.) “Alan and Cathy from Milford,” Curran said. “They have an ’07 Beetle that’s about to be paid off. We sold it in ’05. They have a forty-eight-month lease. We’re going to start contacting them because they’re up in April. We know everything about them, even what they look like.”
Something in the details of these lives—Alan and Cathy, Milford, Beetle—seemed so sad and shabby that, in watching Curran handle them, I had a vision of the car dealer as Chichikov, the protagonist of the Gogol novel, haggling and trading for dead souls.
I met Curran a few days later at his Cadillac dealership in Westport. He seemed slower here, less buoyant, as if weighted by the history of the American auto industry. He was dressed differently, too, in a suit and tie, loafers. Because that’s what a typical Cadillac customer expects: Mass in Latin, car dealer in suit and tie. “The brand skews senior citizen,” said Curran, with the interesting exception of the Escalade, which, “believe it or not,” does gangbusters in “the rap community.” We walked through the dealership, in and out of the body shop and bays, where eighty-thousand-dollar cars had been cranked up on lifts and pneumatic drills with ka-koooosh, ka-koooosh through the showroom, where Curran spoke to an old woman looking for a new Caddy—“That’s your typical Cadillac customer,” he told me—up a stairway to his office, which had been his father’s before his. If the American auto industry turtles and historians want to preserve a relic of the culture, they might take apart this office and ship it to the Smithsonian. The room, solid and woody in the way of the offices of the robber barons, is a snapshot of the golden age of the car salesman. There is a tremendous desk covered with important-looking stacks of papers and models of old cars. The walls are covered with photos, some taken at annual golf tournaments, some of family, some of favorite long-gone cars, some of Curran and his many siblings, some of national leaders, including photos of both the elder Bush and Reagan, whom Jim Fleming (yes, he’s still here) describes as “my favorite president ever.” One side of the room is filled by an old wooden bar, the sort you might see in a saloon in a John Ford movie, bottles of whiskey and rum behind it. You can’t help but imagine a crowd of salesmen throwing back tumblers to celebrate an especially successful summer blowout. “Did you see the lay-down? Came in looking for a coup, and I walked him out in an El Dorado!”
“A guy named Vost was the original dealer here,” said Curran. “In 1964, he died and Jack O’Keefe bought the store, and Jack O’Keefe was a liquor distributor and wasn’t a car guy and didn’t know the business. My father worked at General Motors for the Cadillac division. He was district sales manager. O’Keefe offered him a partnership if he left GM. In those days, you’d give your left arm to be a Cadillac dealer.”
Here’s a sad fact: Curran Cadillac, where the old man used to sit and count his money, is now being supported by the VW dealership in Stratford. Which typifies the state of the American automobile industry, once a wild, careering, risk-taking, inventive, car-racing youth, now a doddering old man on a fixed income, supported by his once ne’er-do-well stepson Fritz.
I could end here, with Curran in his suit, behind the desk in his father’s office, a living man closed in the tomb of a pharaoh, but I prefer to end with a vision I witnessed a few days earlier, as I was leaving the Buick dealership in Wilton. Turning out of the lot, I was passed by a truck carrying, on its flatbed, a prototype of GM’s electric car, the Volt, which many believe will save the industry. It was painted marbled green and covered with stickers and writing. Though it will not reach the market until 2010, it was being shown around dealerships, where it might offer hope—a life raft on the horizon. Passing above the used Malibus and Cobalts and Aveos, some blue, some gray, all dirty, the Volt looked like a young Buddha, the boy-child reincarnation of an ancient lama soul, raised on outstretched hands above the troubles of this world.
Illustration by Tony Millionaire
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