Tales From The Dealership: Who's The U-Boat Commander?

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
tales from the dealership who s the u boat commander

Ask any car salesman: lying to the customer is a fine art. And when it came to the practice of that art, Bob was Picasso, he was Michelangelo, he was Jeff Koons, all wrapped up in a single grandfatherly persona. There was none better. He could scale heights of deception hitherto unknown at our dignified little Ford dealership. And it was through his efforts that we came, for the first time in perhaps decades, to the attention of the Ohio Attorney General.

I walked into the store one fall afternoon in 1995 to find a six-foot-three, silver-haired, square-jawed fellow in a good Hart-Schaffner-Marx suit standing at attention near the front door. “Bob,” he stated, giving my hand a shake that was impeccably calculated to intimidate in both duration and durometer of squeeze.

“Breakfast,” I replied, and wandered back to my desk to figure out how to get some. Over milk and donuts from the local grocery store, my main man Rodney gave me the lowdown on Bob. He’d been a service advisor for a rural Ford dealer since the ’60s. The dealership had closed and Bob had been kind of set adrift as a consequence. He’d decided to come to the city and try his luck in what we called “the front of the house.”

He was movie-star handsome, but he also walked with a limp that I heard him describe to various customers at various times as the product of a motorcycle accident, a hunting accident, the Vietnam War, and the Kent State student protest. He had a high, clear, country voice that sounded almost impossibly trustworthy. He looked you in the eye at all times. He told outrageous stories about hillbilly drag racing, bare-knuckle brawling, killing five-hundred pound feral hogs with a Bowie knife.

At first, Rodney and I snickered at his cornpone earnestness, his habit of putting one hand on his chest and casting his eyes to the sky whenever he said something that he thought was particularly worthy of your attention, his utter lack of awareness regarding established dealership sales procedures. We rebuffed his attempts at friendship with a combination of sullenness on my side and streetwise too-cool-for-school disdain on Rodney’s. Neither of us gave him more than a month in the business, max.

He’d started midway through September and he hadn’t put up a single sale on our board before the beginning of October. But then a funny thing started to happen. Bob started selling cars. He was second from the top in October, behind the 67-year-old guy who had a back catalogue of customers that spanned four decades. Rodney and I wrote it off as a fluke. When he was on top of the board in November, we stopped laughing. And when he held the leadership spot for the four months that followed, our mouths might as well have been sewn shut.

Bob could sell. And he could “hold gross,” often selling cars for sticker or above. He closed an absurd percentage of “ups”. I was in my 20s at the time and as of yet too arrogant and/or disinterested to think that I could learn anything from the man. But that didn’t stop me from watching a few of his transactions. What I discovered was disturbingly simple. Bob was a liar.

I don’t mean that Bob was a liar in the conventional car-salesman sense, where you obscure the numbers a bit and shade the trade and that sort of stuff. I mean he was a flat-out, bald-faced liar. He lied about the cars. It was a novel and fascinating tactic from my perspective. He could lie about anything.

“The Taurus might seem a little slow,” he’d tell an elderly customer, “but they have a secret coating that wears off on the cylinders and when it does, it don’t pass emissions anymore. But it does … ” and here he would wink, “get a lot faster.”

“If you decide you really want that back row in the Aerostar,” he said, pointing at the five-seat XLT that we couldn’t sell at any price to anybody, “just come on back and ask for Bob. I’ll sell it to you for two hundred bucks. Might even be free. We have some lying around. But they’re in the warehouse. Can’t get to ’em before the first of the month.”

“This little car is built right here in Ohio, by good people like you and me,” he smiled, pointing at a ’96 Aspire.

“All of our cars,” he reassured a worried-looking mother, “are available with front-wheel-drive.” I came to have a grudging admiration for his completely flexible approach to reality. But his passenger-car perversions of reality were piker stuff compared to the way he sold light trucks. If he needed to sell a straight-six out of inventory, he told the customer that the 5.0 liter blew up. If he needed to sell the 5.0 liter, he said that the straight six needed a $1,500 valve adjustment every 10,000 miles. He did “dealership add-ons” of locking differentials, new axle ratios, and pretty much anything else that the customer couldn’t easily verify — and he added them to the sticker at full retail.

Belatedly, I came to realize that Bob was a good liar because he’d had plenty of practice. Service advisors are, by and large, congenital distorters of the truth, serving as a sort of hugely flawed filter between customers who don’t know what’s wrong with the cars and mechanics who can’t be bothered to explain what they actually fixed. After 30 years or so of telling people they needed transmission flushes and new air filters and Christ knows what else, whatever sense of honesty Bob possessed had long since been replaced by an animal-like instinct for understanding what the customer would accept.

Bob’s customers started to come back. For their free Aerostar seats, for their limited-slip differentials, for their cars that didn’t get magically faster. This was a new experience for our dealership principal. He’d always hired relatively staid and honest people to work the sales floor. Rodney and I were examples of that: for the most part, we told the customer the truth no matter what that did to our chances of making the deal. But he’d been fooled by Bob’s honest manner and his country appearance. The first few times a customer came back to the dealer claiming that they were owed something, or that they’d been deceived, the dealer believed Bob’s disavowals. After half a year, that was no longer the case. Bob had to go. It was a new experience for all of us; we’d never seen anybody fired by a sales department for anything other than the cardinal sin of not selling enough cars.

Bob took a job as a service advisor for the megadealer across town. We all agreed it was a good fit. About 90 days after he stopped darkening our door and two-handed-handshaking our customers, we got a letter from the Ohio Attorney General. Apparently Bob had sold a four-cylinder, automatic-transmission Ranger on base-equipment tires to a fellow who wanted to tow a massive powerboat. According to the complaint the customer had filed, he had nearly been killed about a dozen times getting to the boat ramp. But when he started backing the boat down the ramp, it just kept pulling the Ranger backwards. He floored the pedal, expecting the all-wheel-drive to kick in.

This was not an all-wheel-drive Ranger. There really wasn’t any such thing as an all-wheel-drive Ranger. But Bob had told him that it had the same system as the AWD V8 Explorer, which had no 4WD knob. So you can imagine the customer’s surprise when the back wheels started slipping on the wet ramp.

The boat dragged the Ranger into five feet of water, where it sputtered and died. After both Ranger and boat were towed out by actual 4WD trucks, the buyer decided to get the State of Ohio involved.

I don’t know how they settled the complaint; I left the dealership before the process concluded. Nor do I know what happened to Bob. He’d be in his 80s now. I’d like to think that he’s sitting in a retirement home now, telling the tallest of tales to an admiring audience. Or maybe he’s standing in front of Saint Peter as we speak, trying to close that one last sale before it’s too late.

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  • Is_lander Is_lander on Sep 19, 2016

    I think a lot of us have run into a "Bob" or have a similar story. One time as I was shopping for a new car, and I asked the salesperson if the car we were looking at was available with disc brakes all around; as I was pointing at the rear drum brakes in front of us. His very quick answer was, "yes this car right here has anti-lock brakes all around". I already knew the answer to my question before I asked it. I immediately walked away from that dealer. Shady guy or incompetent sales person? Same result.

    • JMII JMII on Sep 19, 2016

      I play this game at Best Buy occasionally. I am bit of an audio / video geek and thus know how that stuff actually works. It is kind of fun to bait a clueless sales or tech guy into a total lie. They often just string together random buzzwords hoping you'll get confused and then agree to hand over your credit card. The scary part is I think most car salesman aren't really lying on purpose... I think they honestly don't know the product that well. Sales occurs on a personal level, so its about a relationship, details are often not important if trust is established. For example when we purchased our Volvo I pointed out multiple times that it was not an "R-Design" despite all the paperwork that said so. I had to actually grab a brochure and circle the differences, then point to the locations on the car and show them what was missing. Granted these were minor trim parts but for the sale guy it never registered that his inventory sheet was wrong.

  • Gkhize Gkhize on Sep 21, 2016

    I am an info security expert by trade but work on my own cars as well as those of friends and family. (I only charge for parts plus beer and/or baked goods) I've never had any personal problems with dealer service departments because I only use them for warranty stuff and know when to call bullsh!t with them. My friends and family; not so much. My sister-in-law went in for an oil change and was told she needed to spend $3000+ asap to replace a leaking steering rack on her $2500 Dodge mini-van. I tightened the loose line on the power steering pump and poured in some fluid I had on the shelf in exchange for 2 doz homemade cookies. Brakes and shocks are another area where I've saved people lots of money while stocking the beer fridge. Overall, the vast majority of service departments/repair shops are honest upstanding businesses. I recommend several local shops for stuff I can't or don't want to do that I trust with my own stuff. It's unfortunate that the schiesters give everyone a bad name.

  • Teddyc73 A resounding NO. This has "Democrat" "Socialism" "liberalism" "Progressivism" and "Communism" written all over it.
  • Jeffrey An all electric entry level vehicle is needed and as a second car I'm interested. Though I will wait for it to be manufactured in the states with US components eligible for the EV credit.
  • Bob65688581 Small by American standards, this car is just right for Europe, and probably China, although I don't really know, there. Upscale small cars don't exist in the US because Americans associate size and luxury, so it will have a tough time in the States... but again Europe is used to such cars. Audi has been making "small, upscale" since forever. As usual, Americans will miss an opportunity. I'll buy one, though!Contrary to your text, the EX30 has nothing whatsoever to do with the XC40 or C40, being built on a dedicated chassis.
  • Tassos Chinese owned Vollvo-Geely must have the best PR department of all automakers. A TINY maker with only 0.5-0.8% market share in the US, it is in the news every day.I have lost count how many different models Volvo has, and it is shocking how FEW of each miserable one it sells in the US market.Approximately, it sells as many units (TOTAL) as is the total number of loser models it offers.
  • ToolGuy Seems pretty reasonable to me. (Sorry)