“We need young, college-educated people like you,” the man said, “because the old way of selling cars is dead and gone. That’s why I was hired — to bring the dealership into the present day.” And with those thoroughly self-deceived words, the new sales manager at “Infiniti Of Columbus” welcomed to me to the team in March of 1994. It was the end of winter in Ohio, but it was just the middle of Infiniti’s long winter of discontent. We had three products. There was a facelifted Q45 which precisely nobody wanted. There was a facelifted G20 which cost nearly as much as a Lexus ES300 while closely resembling a Nissan Sentra inside and out. Note, however, that the G20 shared nothing but the engine with the aforementioned Sentra. On any given month, we would sell two G20s and no Q45s. In fact, during my entire six months’ tenure at the store, we only sold two Q45s, one of them to a salesman who was quitting to go work for Merrill Lynch.
It was the new-for-1993 J30 that kept the lights on and paid our meager draws against commission. The jellybean-shaped, rear-wheel-drive sedan was available as a J30 or J30t. Neither car had any options available: in an amazing reductio ad absurdum of the Japanese export philosophy, the equipment list was the same for every single car that came off the boat. The “t” model added HICAS four-wheel-steering, a rear spoiler that truly spoiled the otherwise interesting design, and some cross-spoke wheels. They were hideously expensive — $37,995 and up in an era where an LS400 could be had for fifty grand or less — and they were both controversial-looking and suspiciously similar to a Nissan Altima at a distance. (Jerry Hirschberg designed ‘em both.)
It didn’t matter. We rarely sold any outright, but more than 20 would leave the lot every month thanks to the Magic Lease.
The head honchos at Nissan USA knew the car was overpriced, and badly so. Their solution was elegant. The oh-so-English Jonathan Pryce was hired to do a series of advertisements about “the astonishing J30″, and a genuinely astonishing lease program was put into place. $1500 down, $399 a month, 36 months, 36,000 miles. Extra miles were cheap and the dealership management always just threw the down payment away, so most people paid about $450 a month, tax included, for a 45,000 mile contract with nothing out of pocket. “t” models were $15 a month more.
The numbers were ridiculous. The cars were “capped” — sold to Nissan Financial — for about $34,000. The three-year residual was expected to be about $29,000. Ha! We had six-month-old buyer’s-remorse specials on the lot that wouldn’t fetch $29K. Nissan was just sending its problems into the future. Who cares? At that price, we could make them disappear.
Still, plenty of buyers could think of reasons to look this gift horse in the mouth. Almost nobody liked the looks. The trunk was minuscule and the rear seats didn’t fold. The sunroof was steel, not glass. The car was noisy and cramped inside. Although it was essentially a four-seat 300ZX, it wasn’t a four-seat 300ZX Turbo, which meant it was slow. (JDM variants got a 4.1L V8 and a turbo 2.5V6, as I recall.) Infiniti had virtually no brand equity, to put it mildly. We all learned that our best chance to move the iron was to convince unaccompanied spouses to sign before the better half could show up and say, “$399 is a lot for an Altima.”
The irony was that there was plenty to love about the J30. It was put together like a Zenith El Primero. The materials quality shamed both Lexus and ze Chermans. The “t” was a little spooky at high speeds, since the HICAS never seemed to give the same response twice in third-gear corners, but that was part of the fun. The stereo was damned good. It really felt like a high-quality piece.
My new boss was new to the auto industry. This was good, because he didn’t do anything that sales managers typically did, such as scream incoherently for no reason. He let us take weekends off. Most importantly, he didn’t understand the NADA Guide and therefore he always paid Dealer Retail for trade-ins. Once I understood that, I called my father and he dragged his boat-anchor Audi 100LS into the shop, crossing his fingers that the transmission didn’t perform its usual gearchange gymnastics during the test drive. His wish was granted and he left with two $399/month J30s. One was triple black, the other was blue with a cream interior. Most importantly, they were 1994 models. The 1995 car was chock-full of cost-cutting and it was obvious when you sat in one.
Our no-hassle sales philosophy and enlightened approach to customer satisfaction didn’t help us sell used cars at Dealer Retail plus a few grand. The lot filled up. The floorplan overflowed. One day the dealership principal showed up at the building. It was before noon and he was sober. These were bad signs. The sales manager was escorted out of the building. The replacement was a fat, oily Macedonian fellow from a Hyundai shop in the iffy part of Columbus. His first official act was to wholesale most of the used lot at a six-figure loss. His second official act was to fire the sullen-looking college kid who parked his Kawasaki Ninja on the showroom floor in the evenings. Thus released, I walked the earth like Caine, or at least rode it like a douchebag, until my next dealership job. It was there that I witnessed a salesperson exchange sex for a chance to sell a Thunderbird, but that’s another story.