By on November 5, 2014

ford-dealership-newark-1950s Courtesy grayflannelsuit.net

It appears that I am a few days behind Matt in cruising westbound down Route 66 in New Mexico. We checked into the legendary Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari last night and discovered that our room came equipped with the December 24, 1956 issue of Automotive News, unearthed from a long-closed dealership down the street. Some of the articles in the trade rag proved that today’s car biz is indeed, in the words of Yankee great Yogi Berra, “deja vu all over again”…

I learned from the magazine that the industry was heading for 6 million new car sales in the United States in 1956, the third-best year in history. Ford and Chevrolet were in a virtual tie in registrations through October, each with 1.3 million units. Studebaker was hawking the Golden Hawk for $3,181.82. You could buy a Nash Ambassador, Hudson Hornet or DeSoto Fireflight. American Motors was in trouble, projecting losses of 19 million dollars for the year.

There were few stories about import brands, except one about a New York Volkswagen dealer who reported he has a eight-month backlog of orders for the Beetle and thus would be unable to supply one to the Buffalo Auto Fashion Show.

(By the way, did any auto journo have a longer career than John K. Teahan, Jr., who wrote for Automotive News up until a few months before his death in 2013? He was listed as an editorial assistant in this issue, having started there the prior year.)

So I am in a retro motel, reading a retro issue of an auto magazine and wondering why some of the stories could be from 2014:

“Wisconsin Scrutinizes Dealers on Licenses.”

“..the question of renewing the license of Courtesy Motors, Inc (Lincoln-Mercury) was under advisement…among the practices were “would you take” or “bait” advertising; bushing; unrealistic over-allowances; taking car keys from prospective purchasers to detain them during sales negotiations; assigning salesmen to park near competitors to procure license numbers of prospective customers…used-cars or demonstrators had been sold as new; alterations of contracts and failure to give customers terms stated in advertising…”

“Dispute Over Deal Leads to Slaying of Car Salesman”

PITTSBURGH, – “Jack Allison, a salesman for Big Three Motors, Inc., died of a bullet wound inflicted by a customer in a dispute about payments on a car. Police held Raymond Lawson, 24, who has admitted to the shooting.

Lawson purchased a car from Big Three and said he was told his payments would be $46 a month. However, he said, his payment book called for $61 a month. He said he went to the company’s offices to insist on a correction…Allison was shot between the eyes as he walked across the office…”

“Fuel Economy Improvement Discussed by Engineers”

“Some say the five-year upward surge of horsepower ratings and vehicle performance is nearing a level where it must begin to taper off. They don’t expect the horsepower race to stop – just slacken a bit from its recent skyrocketing pace. If that true, we may see the industry soft-petal talk of higher horsepower and give more emphasis to fuel economy.

image-000 AN 1956

Some other headlines that sound familiar:

“Safety Probers to Request Stronger U.S. Policy”

(Chrysler Says Dealers’) “Future of Sales, Profits Tied to Personal Touch”

“Auto ‘White Collar’ Face Union Drive”

“Canada Sales Boom; Dealers Seeks Salesmen”

The publication also warned its readers about a subscription con (“…certain unscrupulous individuals have been fleecing our subscribers by collecting payments for new and renewal subscriptions.”) The scam is still alive and well in recent years, now targeting Autoweek, a sister Crain Communications publication to Automotive News.

One change from 58 years ago was the media’s apparent lack of celebrity worship. Can you image Oscar-winning actress Jennifer Lawrence wedding the owner of a car dealership today and it not being front page news? This tiny piece was buried on the bottom of page 7:

MIAMI, -“Richard Fincher, 28, a Miami Oldsmobile car dealer, and actress Gloria DeHaven, 30, will be married here Jan. 23. It will be Miss DeHaven’s third marriage, Fincher’s first”…

How does a dealer principal have the time to court and wed a Hollywood Walk Of Fame actress? It turns out Fincher was actually the offspring of the Olds dealer, or what is still known today by the derogatory OEM term, “Dealer’s Son;” in other words, dad put the sweat equity into the store and son played and drove the business into the ground. Some things never change…

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54 Comments on “The Car Business Has Not Changed Much Since 1956...”


  • avatar
    DeadWeight

    AWESOME article and comments!

    It’s amazing how “the more things change…”

    …Nothing about phishing or Nigerian email scams, though.

    I love, LOVE the part about “Wisconsin Scrutinizes Dealers on Licenses.”

    Welcome back, Steve. You were sorely missed.

  • avatar
    Lie2me

    Miss DeHaven was on her third marriage at 30. Doesn’t sound like either party was terribly picky

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    Gloria is still alive, Wikipedia tells me. Richard married her twice.

    “She was married to Richard Fincher from 1957 until 1963; they remarried in 1965 and divorced again in 1969.”

  • avatar
    28-Cars-Later

    My favorite is the bullet between the eyes of the salesman. Killing a man over $15 dollars a month, which is $131.27 in 2014 according to BLS- this was worth a life. Its a wonder things like that do not happen today, I suppose its proof the mass fluoridation is working.

  • avatar
    Fred

    Ah the good-ole-days, same as it ever was.

  • avatar
    319583076

    Let’s talk about something important – how many times was “Hellcat” mentioned in the vintage Automotive News!?!

    • 0 avatar
      PenguinBoy

      Ok, I’ll bite…

      In 1957 there was no Hellcat – but I believe the most powerful car available in America was the Chrysler 300 with the 390 horsepower version of the 392 CID “FirePower Hemi”.

      I’m sure it was mentioned in the news somewhere, perhaps even in the “Some say the five-year upward surge of horsepower ratings and vehicle performance is nearing a level where it must begin to taper off.” article referenced above.

      Some things never change…

      • 0 avatar
        CJinSD

        It seems they were right. Power outputs had more than doubled in about 6 years and then they only grew by about 10% over the next dozen; at which point changes to ratings procedures, fuel availability, and emissions regulations halted the horsepower race for many years.

  • avatar

    Things have indeed changed considerably if a dealership in 1956 could have a showroom full of 1959 Fords.

  • avatar
    Occam

    A question for the B&B who were around then…

    I’ve always had the impression, both from seeing old options sheets on cars and the tiny lots at older car dealerships, that car buying was largely an “Custom order and wait for delivery” system in the 1950’s and 60’s, and that expecting a massive lot with every option combination in stock is a more recent development. Can you confirm/deny?

    • 0 avatar
      highdesertcat

      Occam, I was 10 years old 1956 and I remember my dad coming home with a new car about every two years but I am reasonably sure IIRC he would go to a dealer and buy from whatever new they had on the lot at the time.

      He never had to order a car. Usually found one he liked, took it for a test drive and then sat down to haggle and jaw a bit.

      I lived in Huntington Beach, CA, a part of the Los Angeles, CA metropolis, and there were many new car dealers in that area.

      Cal Worthington was peddling Chrysler/Dodge/Plymouth/DeSoto at the time and was one of my dad’s sponsors at the drag races.

      If a dealer didn’t want to deal or couldn’t deal, my dad would press on to another one. Plenty of selection.

      He did do a lot of business with Cal Worthington and in fact bought a 1962 Chrysler 300 Convertible from him, off the showroom floor. No waiting. Traded a ’57 Mercury for it, IIRC.

      • 0 avatar
        -Nate

        Dealers back then didn’t stock hundreds of vehicles , they usually had a decent selection and one or two strippers they used to draw you in , good luck getting them to sell any stripper to you though .

        So , you could take a look around and if they could convince you to take something off the lot all was well .

        Or you could sit down and spec. one out with the colors combinations and options you wanted then wait .

        -Nate

        • 0 avatar
          319583076

          Cal Worthington is surely an exception from what the rest of the country was doing. I have no doubt you could buy off the lot from a Worthington dealership back then. If you don’t know who he is – look him up.

          Cliffs notes – He is the archetypical TV car salesman and he pioneered auto malls.

        • 0 avatar
          CobraJet

          In 1955 my parents ordered a new Ford Fairlane in the color they wanted, white over blue. They waited a while for it to come in. When it arrived the color was blue over white. The dealer said no problem, we’ll take it around to the body shop and have it repainted, which they did. It was several days later before my folks could take delivery because the paint was slow to dry. No oven was avaiable for the enamel paint, I suppose.

          • 0 avatar
            319583076

            In 1983 my old man ordered an Arctic Blue Super Sports wagon with C.B. radio and optional Rally Fun Pack. I got to go to the dealership with him to pick it up…but when we got there, they tried to force us into a metallic pea green Wagon Queen Family Truckster instead. Well, we weren’t having any of that so we demanded our old car back. You see, we were about to embark on a Family Vacation – driving from Chicago to Orange County, California to visit a theme park. Unfortunately, the dealership crushed our trade and we were forced to take the WQFT. It all worked out OK in the end, although Pops went a little nuts.

          • 0 avatar
            Lie2me

            @CobraJet, How did the repaint hold up?

            @319583076, Funny story, someone ought to make a movie out of it

          • 0 avatar
            28-Cars-Later

            You changed so much between that vacation and the Vegas vacation didn’t you Rusty?

          • 0 avatar
            Occam

            Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr John Hughes!

          • 0 avatar
            CobraJet

            We didn’t keep the 55 Ford long enough to find out about the life of the paint. Back then cars had a 90-day warranty. The Ford started having engine troubles sometime after the warranty expired. Dad traded it for a new 55 Olds which he bought off the dealer lot.

          • 0 avatar
            Lie2me

            “Back then cars had a 90-day warranty”

            The next person who says anything to do with cars was better “back when…” is going to get this sentence right between their rose-colored glasses

          • 0 avatar
            petezeiss

            Back when dealerships had big neon signs, cars were better.

          • 0 avatar
            Lie2me

            Only for 90 days

          • 0 avatar
            Lorenzo

            In the 1950s, most people bought off the lot. I know an aunt, two uncles, and two neighbors did. Detroit really preferred it that way: K.T. Keller, the Chrysler Chairman responsible for tall Chryslers in the early ’50s so he could wear his hat either driving or sitting in the back seat, also made it his goal to “eliminate special orders”.

            They really gummed up assembly line efficiency. There were options, but a lot of them were installed by the dealer into a car on the lot. My aunt Mary in particular made sure it was factory Ford enamel paint. She never waxed, but washed her cars weekly with Spic’N’Span.

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        I’m not buying the line “he took it for a test drive and then sat down to haggle” line if he was buying a new car. The norm was that you drove one of the demos and if you were buying off the lot you needed to make the deal before they let you behind the wheel of one of the “new” cars. Now maybe if he had a good long term relationship with that dealer they might have made some exceptions. But in general they didn’t want a person sullying a “new” car that they couldn’t sell as “new” with 10-20 miles on it.

        • 0 avatar
          highdesertcat

          Scoutdude!!! I am deeply disappointed that you think I lied about my dad’s new-car buying experiences 55-64 years ago.

          What I can tell you for certain is, is that he did buy several new cars during his lifetime, and many more used cars as well. Seven kids and a wife all needed transportation.

          But I didn’t come along for many of his buying experiences. I do remember him telling my mom how the buying experience went down, and that’s what I offered as a comment.

          Maybe in California dealers had a different methodology to getting a prospective to buy. Or maybe the dealership could tell who was a serious potential and who was just a looky-loo.

          • 0 avatar
            Scoutdude

            Like I said if he was a frequent buyer then they may have let him drive one of the floor stock since they knew he was a repeat customer and knew he was highly likely to buy. Especially if he was sponsored by the dealer. In general though they only let people drive the demos.

            I’m sorry if it sound like I accused you of lying.

          • 0 avatar
            highdesertcat

            Scoutdude, not a problem. No offense taken. I was just joshin’ you. We’ve been on these boards so long, we know who we can believe.

            BTW, my youngest son sold his restored 4X4 Scout II/345 in Brownsville, TX. Used the money for a down payment on a new Cherokee V6 for his wife. Says she loves it.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      It wasn’t until the days after the gas crisis when Chrysler started their rebates that it wasn’t the norm to order the car of your dreams from a set of ala carte options. Chyrsler faced with a lack of orders kept building cars and placed them in their “sales bank” ie a parking lot. They then gave dealers incentives for purchasing those rotting cars, which in turn led to the rebates which required you to “purchase from dealer stock”.

      The norm was for a salesman to be issued a demonstrator and when you wanted to test drive a model you drove that salesman’s car that he used as his car. Those demonstrators were then sold at the end of the year at a supposed great deal. Yes there were cars on the lot that you could drive home today but the choices were rather limited.

      The norm was when the new model year rolled around the dealer would order a hand full of cars. A full boat convertible for the showroom, and if the showroom was large enough maybe the sporty version. One bare bones model for the “bait and switch” ad in the paper touting the new 19xx Wondermobile starting at only $xxxx.

      There would be a couple of demos for the salesmen with your seniority, or past sales performance dictating what they got. A new guy would get the Bel-Air/Custom while the average salesman might get a modestly equpped Impala/Galaxie and the top performer a Caprice/LTD.

      In the early 70’s Oldsmobile’s tag line was “Can we build one for you?” Which was transformed into the tag line “We built one for you.” by the mid 70’s. The Japanese car revolution also cemented the buy off the dealer lot syndrome and the options packages we see today since it could take months to schedule and ship a car from Japan.

      There was a lot of talk about the Japanese doing just in time manufacturing but the reality is that is what the American car companies did in the 50’s and 60’s and was why they could afford to offer 14 different interior colors/combinations. The seamstress didn’t sit down and sow up a set of pink and green seat covers until a day or two before the car that was to get them went down the line.

      Back in the day when companies only really had one or two cars per brand they actually had a number of plants across the US to both keep up with demand and ensure quick delivery. Even Edsel was initially built in 3 plants CA, MI, MA for the “senior series” and 3 plants CA, NJ, KY that built the “junior series” and wagons.

      • 0 avatar

        The stockpiling of cars in the 1970s was certainly a factor, but so was the influx of imports along with Honda’s decision to offer the 1st generation Accord as a fully equipped car with A/C and a stereo. It seems to met that the Japanese car companies never really pursued a build-to-order business model.

        • 0 avatar
          Scoutdude

          If you reread my comment I did touch on the influence that the Japanese invasion had on the switch from order your dream car to choose from what is on the lot.

      • 0 avatar
        Occam

        I’ve always wondered about “demos.” My dad said he used to get deals on nearly new cars that were demos, but it’s something that seemed to be from another place and time. Thanks!

        I wonder about features we hear “don’t sell,” and how much of it is people expecting to find the exact car they want on a lot, rather than special ordering. At most dealerships, special ordering doesn’t seem to come up – it’s usually “can we find this car at another dealer’s lot and work a transfer/swap.” If you want an unusual spec (i.e. don’t want a PRND lever like your grandmother’s Camry), you take whatever color can be found.

  • avatar
    petezeiss

    Thank you for that glorious photo.

    In ’59 I was 4 yrear-old and in love with Ford ’cause they gave kids 1/24th metal models of the cars their dads bought.

    • 0 avatar
      Rick T.

      My grandparents had a scale model of the early 60’s Ford Galaxie they bought but it was plastic. I assume they got it from the dealer but at 8 or 9 I was only interested in zooming it around and crashing it into the walls. Gotta love grandparents.

    • 0 avatar
      Syke

      You guys should come up to my place. Courtesy of my father is pretty much the complete set of Chevrolet promotional models, 1953-1965. That was part of my Christmas gift every year.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    From the photo of the paper, there is an article of something that has indeed changed:

    “US optimistic on CAR EXPORTS despite Suez” (capitalized words mine).

    A few paragraphs down, it appears that US automakers considered the Western Europe counterparts to be the their major competitors.

  • avatar
    AGR

    Back in the day most if not all manufacturers wanted/required dealers to keep a 60 day supply of new vehicles in inventory. It was common practice to order all the vehicles, each dealer had its own way of ordering vehicles that suited the requirements of the customer base.

    In Canada customers would special order vehicles during the winter months for spring delivery. You could get all sorts of stuff from the factory, especially if one had the right contacts, and knew his way around the options for each make and model.

    Locating vehicle was not easy had to call the zone office to see which dealer had the vehicle, later it was a microfiche. Most folks knew all of the option codes of the top of their heads.

    The ideal mileage on demos was between 3,000 to 5,000 miles, needless to mention that a ton of creativity applied to keep the mileage within those parameters. Yes…there was an hierarchy to demos.

    The spread between MSRP and cost was at least 15%, and hold back was another 2%, the gross was usually 10% of cost plus the hold back in the day. Dealers today are making comparable grosses.

    When the new model year arrived, manufacturers would allow 5% PMA (past model allowance), dealers would pre sell a ton of vehicles dated after the PMA date.

    Automotive News was the bible back then to be informed on what was going on in the industry.

    Needles to mention that a GM franchise was a license to print money.

    There were no calculators, computers, it was all done by hand the saying of “penciling a deal”. The parts inventory was on a Kardex, the car deals were accounted on Reynolds and Reynolds forms.

    Used vehicles were appraised and subsequently “costed” when the deal was accounted.

    At some dealerships sales consultants were paid on the “wash out” the gross on the new and on the trade (when the trade was sold).

    An overview of what goes on between dealers and manufacturers http://www.thestrada.net/thought-factory/2014/10/1/behind-closed-doors.html

  • avatar
    wstarvingteacher

    I really don’t remember 90 day warranties. I realize the focus here was the fifties and it might have been. The typical new car warranty was 12mos’12k,mi that I really remember. When I returned from Vietnam I was able to order a Buick Skylark with the trimmings I wanted through the Navy Exchange. I think I may have been preoccupied when they stopped doing that. I remember we all thought Chrysler was crazy when they went to 50/50.

    I think the car market changed tremendously in so many ways. The product change in my lifetime went from wartime production only to what we have today. Still have a 57 Chevy but you can’t drive nostalgia. There really is nothing that it does that a modern car cannot do better.

  • avatar
    petezeiss

    “U.S. Optimistic On Car Exports Despite Suez”

    Where were we exporting cars to in the Middle East that the Suez Crisis would’ve impacted? Egypt, Iran and Lebanon?

    • 0 avatar
      MRF 95 T-Bird

      The 1956 Suez crisis impeded the flow of oil to Europe which at the time was quite dependent on ME petrol. It was one of the reasons Europeans started designing smaller city type cars like the Fiat 500 and Sir Alec Issigonis created the Mini. From Wikipedia: “However, at the end of 1956, following fuel rationing brought about by the Suez Crisis, Issigonis was ordered by Lord to bring the smaller car, XC/9003, to production as quickly as possible.”

  • avatar
    MrGreenMan

    Tucumcari is a wonderful place; I have fond memories of the last rest stop before Texas while fleeing Albuquerque to return to some place with grass and rain. It was at the survivalist-shack-cum-gas-station, formerly a Shell, but with some bizarre pirate symbol up on the sign, that, with 9/11 not much in the rear view mirror, it was exciting to be able to purchase emergency rations, ammo, clothing, books, Korans, books talking about how bad Islam was, and books talking about how good Islam was. What a place! If only he had sold cars!

  • avatar
    -Nate

    I seem to recall Chrysler Co. offered a 50,000 mile engine warranty in the 1950’s .

    My Father always bought what I thought of as weird cars and said he wished his Peugeots , VW’s , Bentlys IHC Travelalls Et Al had it .

    BTW : the IHC Travelall was the original Road Queen Family Truckster ~ it easily swallowed 6 kids , two Adults and all their cargo , no roof rack necessary .

    -Nate

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