The word on the street is that GM’s new Malibu is quite the sales success. Nearly thirteen thousand of the “New ‘Bu” found homes in December – but wait! They could have sold even more, if they’d had any left! That’s right: for the first time in any of our recent memories, a domestically produced mid-sized sedan is “production constrained”. By any standard you want to use – sales, customer feedback, the drooling, incomprehensible babbles of The Press As A Whole – the Malibu is a winner. This is the one for which we’ve waited, the make-no-excuses product to take the fight to the Japanese. There’s nothing standing between General Motors and complete dominance over the HondOta CamCord.
Nothing, that is, except your inner chimpanzee. Read More
I’d like to start this week with a bit of an apology – not for what I’ve done, mind you, but for what I am going to do. Fourteen years ago, I was a flat broke, know-nothing kid starting at the bottom of a small-town Ford dealership’s auto (and light truck!) sales department. The hours weren’t great, and most of the actual minutes were even worse, as Douglas Adams would say. On a monthly “draw” against commission of eight hundred dollars, I didn’t exactly live like a king. Heck, I couldn’t even afford to eat a real lunch. Instead, I’d buy two fifty-nine-cent McD’s cheeseburgers and wander over to the used car department, where “old Frank”, the finance manager for the “used side”, would be telling stories while trying to sort out the motor trade insurance for the business. After forty-plus years in the business, Frank knew all the tales of the car biz, and he wasn’t shy about telling them, no matter how disturbing, slanderous, or just plain obscene they might be. One lifeless Tuesday afternoon, I said to him,
“Hey Frank, you oughta write a book about this stuff.” Frank reacted to this mild suggestion with unconcealed disapproval and what was very possibly contempt, as if I’d suggested that he put a firecracker in the dealership toilet. His lit cigarette – yes, you could still smoke indoors at a car dealership back in 1994 – dangled dangerously out of his stained hand. He “fixed me with his eye”, as the Ancient Mariner did, and replied v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y.
“I could do that,” he said, “but I won’t. I would never write or say anything against this business. I wouldn’t share our secrets, our business, our life, with people on the outside,” and here his glare became quite focused and intense as I shrank back in one of the used car building’s rickety old wire-frame chairs, “and neither… should… you.” As the years went on, I came to appreciate and understand his statement. I arrived at a deep sympathy with, and later a bit of nostalgia for, the business as it once was. Once upon a time, the car business was a real profession, not a dumping ground for low achievers and double-fisted-handshaking douchebags. Those days are gone, and Frank went with them, dying at the end of a short but brutal bout with cancer well before the turn of this century. I’d like to think Frank wouldn’t mind it if I talked about the business now, but just in case, I want to apologize to him, wherever he is. I’m not going to write a book, but I am going to spend some time talking about the business. We’ll cover it all, from the way dealers finance their stock to the tale of the salesman who took a female customer in a Mustang convertible for a “test drive” that ended with the two of them having rather public sexual intercourse on the road adjacent to the service building…. Today we’re going to talk about how a dealership is really organized, and who really makes the decisions.
You’re a special snowflake. Your parents always told you so, and you believed them, and it turned out to be true. You’re such a special snowflake that you deserve to drive cars for free, to enjoy them at no cost and without any interference. But how can this be accomplished? Read on to find out, as I share my car sales and joyriding experience with you. Since the fateful day when the State of Ohio made the mistake of handing me a drivers’ license, nearly twenty years ago, I’ve driven everything from Sentras to Spykers, often without having a dollar in my pocket. You can do it too; follow along as I show you how.
Last week I promised to tell you how to bamboozle upscale auto dealers into letting you drive their precious cars for free, using nothing other than a few basic props and a strong dose of what the fellow who was my boss back when I was a young Ford salesman called “Playhouse 90”. We’re still going to do that – next week. This week, it’s Christmas evening and I’m feeling a bit sentimental. I’d like to borrow a few minutes of your time and talk about a subject very close to my heart: the Cadillac Motor Car Company, its long descent into darkness, and its thrilling climb back to respectability. You see, I’ve spent the past week or so behind the wheel of an all-wheel-drive Cadillac STS Northstar, and I’ve learned that I’m not the only person who still has deep emotional ties to Cadillac and its history. There are still plenty of dealerships out there which only handle these cars, such as this Kansas City Cadillac dealer, and for good reason.
Everywhere I’ve gone – from the drive-thru at a downtown Wendy’s, where a young black man at the cash register regaled me with the story of his ’91 de Ville and the long hours of effort he’d put into making it “just right”, to the gas station down the street from my house, where a rather tough-looking kid with tattoos on his eyelids begged me to open the hood so he could see the V8, to my own cul-de-sac, where my neighbor, who has managed to utterly ignore everything in my driveway from Viper to CL55 AMG, completely amazed me with his exacting knowledge of the differences between the STS-V and the “regular” STS – people seem to resonate with Cadillac. They resonate with Cadillac as an idea, as an aspiration, and with the car itself. There’s a passion in this country for the wreath and crest, and it’s beyond anything I suspected.
There’s fear, too. Fear that the forty-year decline of “The Standard Of The World” hasn’t been properly arrested, fear that it’s too late for Cadillac to mean anything, fear that the cars are still junk. Thankfully, that fear’s unfounded. As David E. Davis might have said, turn your hymnals to page 2007, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our Caddy”, and sing along with me.
“YOU’RE GOING TO WRECK THE CAR!!!!!” A quick glance confirmed what I had suspected – as she screamed bloody murder, my instructor was actually trying to curl up in the passenger seat, and her hands were covering her face in the classic if-I-can’t-see-the-wall-it-won’t-kill-me pose. I would have studied this amusing little tableau further, but there was some work to do; although we weren’t in much danger of wrecking, we certainly had my Boxster pretty far sideways, at a speed somewhere north of ninety miles per hour, and there was a concrete wall rushing by, about five feet from my left quarter-panel. Best to straighten this thing out and then I could say something really cool, like something Han Solo would have said to Princess Leia back in 1977. Which is what I suppose they meant when they said “a long time ago, in a galaxy far away.” When I finally exited the turn, inside rear wheel lightly spinning and perhaps smoking, I looked at her and said, in as suave a voice as I could manage through the chunky chinbar of my Bell M2 Pro,
“Don’t worry. Water-cooled Porsches are just like Doritos.”
“Doritos?” she squeaked, the reality of our non-death now becoming clearer in her mind.
“Crunch all you want,” and here I smirked in true Han Solo fashion, said smirk being utterly wasted in a full-face helmet, “they’ll make more.”
Ten minutes ago it was a sexy, flashy, highly polished, turbocharged masterpiece of Japanese engineering. Now it’s a muddy, twisted piece of garbage on a flatbed truck, crinkled and compressed like an empty Old Milwaukee can. The passenger door looks like it’s been kicked in by King Kong, while the previously spotless interior is filled with dirt, metal shards, and the acrid odor of what is possibly urine.
“Thank God they survived the brake failure,” somebody said. I shivered once in sympathetic response. Anybody who drives a fifty-two-hundred pound sedan on racetracks, as I do, has a very deep, and very easily excited, fear of brake failure. That little demon of terror sat chuckling on my shoulder during the next track session, as I headed down the long back straight of Summit Point’s Shenandoah circuit, towards the turn where I, too, would have to lean on my stoppers, where the near-deadly equipment failure had just taken place…
Two black rubber stripes, more than fifty feet long, merging seamlessly into two muddy tracks leading all the way to the tire wall. There was a failure here, that’s for sure, but it had nothing to do with brakes. To paraphrase De Niro in Ronin, it was amateur night out here on the track. Incompetent instruction had struck again.