Al shuffled through the stacks of paper littering his desk. Reams of brochures promoting rustproofing, extended warranties, security systems, communication systems, global tracking systems, leasing and financing options, life insurance, disability insurance, loss of income insurance, road hazard insurance…
“Selling cars sure has changed, commented Al, peering at me from over his glasses. “The only ones making any money are the pulp and paper companies…look at this mess!”
“Al, I remember the first car you sold my father…a 1959 Chevrolet Bel Air…and it took you nearly a week to finalize the sale.”
Al emitted a hearty laugh, tipping his pneumatically-adjustable leather office chair back against the wall practically covered with sales awards he’d accumulated over nearly fifty years. “I probably made more on that sale than I am right now.”
Back in the 1950’s and 60’s, there were scores of guys like Al who were part of privately operated used car dealers. They would come right to your door to pitch a car. There was one salesman in particular, known simply as “Smitty”, who was forever trying to update my father into a higher realm of transportation. Smitty was the stereotypical, checker-jacketed car salesman and had a strong passion for Fords, showing up at our place with a series of flashy, dual- and triple-toned hardtops. Smitty liked to sell what he liked to drive instead of what his customers wanted or needed; he sold cars with sizzle, whereas Dad was interested in steak. Smitty could never seem to figure that out, consequently he never sold Dad a car.
Al, on the other hand, sold steak. He’d grown up in the country and was about as honest as anyone in his profession could be. Although that wasn’t saying a lot- many car salesmen of that era had very little interest in ethics and fair play.
At some dealerships, turning back odometers was only the tip of the iceberg. Filling the crankcase with heavy duty gear oil would quiet a clattering valve train or slow the flow from a leaking crankcase bearing. Oatmeal poured into a hot radiator would stop most coolant leaks…at least until the sales contract was signed. The correct amount of Quaker oats could often conceal the gear whine of a faulty differential as well. Repeat sales were of no concern for these borderline establishments…moving cars off the lot were all that mattered.
But it was different in the country where word travelled fast; buyers were few and so were their dollars and no one understood this scenario better than Al. So when he appeared at our farm that July afternoon in 1962 with the aforementioned Bel Air sedan, he at least had some idea of my father’s wants and needs.
Coppertone paint with contrasting ivory trim, whitewall tires and wheel discs, the big Chevrolet made for an impressive display as it sat in our driveway. However, the $1,000.00 price differential for our six year old Ford was too high in my father’s opinion, so following a lengthy but friendly chat, Al and the Chevrolet disappeared from our midst.
Two days later, Al dropped in for further negotiations. As the previous visit, plenty of time was consumed getting around to the subject at hand. First, world events, especially where the nuclear weapons race between the United States and the Soviet Union might culminate. A discussion on Canadian federal and provincial politics followed, before the agenda shifted to local topics such as crops and weather and the expected army worm infestation.
Al commented positively on our Holstein herd, conversing at length on the healthy lifestyle of farming and how he’d certainly be engaged in that occupation today if he hadn’t fallen out of that haymow and injured his back.
Even taking 1950’s automobile styling excesses into account, there was no denying the 1959 Chevrolet was a flamboyant machine with its “batwing” tail fins and “cat’s eyes” tail lights…so Al cautiously began his presentation. “Well, it’s a pretty bold styling statement alright, but it is a Chevy…and honest-to-goodness, downright dependable Chevy.”
Dad opened one of the rear doors; Al knew that farmers liked four doors to provide easy access for kids, dogs, cattle feed, groceries, lumber, hardware, plus a host of other items. “The seats look pretty fancy for a farm car.”
“The upholstery is 100% vinyl,” countered Al, “so whether you’re going to church or the feed mill it’s the best of both worlds…serviceable and attractive.”
“What’s under the hood?”
“An economical six-cylinder that will run forever on regular.” Knowing farmers insisted on making maximum use of all that tax-free tractor gas, Al always made sure that point was clear. “And a standard transmission.”
“That’s good,” Dad replied. “The day I can’t change gears is the day I’ll quit driving!”
Assured he at least had my father’s attention, Al lopped the ball into Dad’s court. “So…what do you think it would take to trade, Harold?”
Dad chose his response carefully. “I was thinking about $800.”
Al’s shoulders sagged. “This is far too much car for that price!” A long dramatic pause ensued with no one saying a word. When no move was made on Dad’s part, Al somewhat reluctantly resumed bargaining.
“Well…I just might be able to squeeze $900.” Dad simply shook his head.
Three days passed and Al returned again, as Dad knew he would. Al had one more swing at the bat. It was sort of like that pivotal third date. Do we get serious…or do we simply say “nice knowing you” and move on. There was somewhat less small talk this round, but time was still made available to discuss the Farmer’s Almanac weather predictions, the previous night’s thunderstorm and the second-cut alfalfa potential.
“I’ll drop another fifty,” Al relented…”but that’s it!” Dad, convinced he’d pushed as hard as he could, accepted. The two shook hands and the deal was complete.
Al shook his head and smiled wistfully as he recalled the scene, slowly running his fingers through what was left of his hair; “…Okay, we’ve got freight, transportation, license, transfer fee, administration fee, federal air conditioning tax, provincial tire tax, fuel conservation tax, plus good and services and provincial sales tax…and of course the interest and finance charges…oh yes…and we put some gas in it for you…that’s what the $20.00 is for.”
“Imagine if I had presented your father with this!” he said, staring at the contract spread out on his desk. A long silence prevailed as Al’s mind drifted off to some other era…“Yes…those were the days…okay…now where we?”