The Car Business Has Not Changed Much Since 1956

Steve Lynch
by Steve Lynch
the car business has not changed much since 1956

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.

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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  • MrGreenMan MrGreenMan on Nov 05, 2014

    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!

  • -Nate -Nate on Nov 06, 2014

    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

  • ToolGuy Here is an interesting graphic, if you're into that sort of thing.
  • ToolGuy Nice website you got there (even the glitches have glitches)
  • Namesakeone Actually, per the IIHS ratings, "Acceptable" is second best, not second worst. The ratings are "Good," "Acceptable," "Marginal" and "Poor."
  • Inside Looking Out "And safety was enhanced generally via new reversing lamps and turn signals fitted as standard equipment."Did not get it, turn signals were optional in 1954?
  • Lorenzo As long as Grenadier is just a name, and it doesn't actually grenade like Chrysler UltraDrive transmissions. Still, how big is the market for grossly overpriced vehicles? A name like INEOS doesn't have the snobbobile cachet yet. The bulk of the auto market is people who need a reliable, economical car to get to work, and they're not going to pay these prices.