Thursday, July 31, 2014

My First Cars

Cars are part of our American culture and as such, everyone remembers their first car. Some remember their first car for what it was - year, model, make, engine, etc. Others remember their first car for where it took them, the friends who rode shotgun, the responsibilities it brought (or didn't bring) or the sense of freedom that came with it.

For me, it was much more of the second group than it was the car. Perhaps if I had driven one of the the "muscle cars" of that era, it would be about the car. But my first car was anything but a muscle car. It was closer to a aircraft carrier!

When I got my South Dakota "learner's permit" back in the fall of 1974, I inherited the family station wagon. It was a 1967 Mercury Colony Park Station Wagon. Before it belonged to my family, it was the property of the Holiday Inn in Mitchell, SD. They had a vinyl sign on the wood grain side of the wagon. When the vinyl was removed, one could see how the wood grain had weathered. The wood grain under the vinyl had not weathered so my first car advertised the Holiday Inn in a not so subtle way.

That mattered little to me. Nor was I bothered by the fact that you could land small aircraft on the hood, that you could rent out the back of the vehicle to a small family, that it got about 3 gallons/mile (yes that is backwards but gas was about $.35 so it mattered little), or that it was a "sled".

I can't find any photos of the old Mercury but the photo below is a pretty good representation of my car. It was maroon instead of white. (Picture a dark image of a Holiday Inn sign on a faded wood grain!)

It was my car. It got me where I needed to go. I did not have to ride my bicycle or depend on my parents for a ride anymore. And the optimist in me rationalized that I could get all my fishing gear in the back of the wagon easily. What more could a 14 year-old ask for?!

1967 Mercury Colony Park Station Wagon

...until I started high school. The upperclassmen were not near as enamored with my "Woody Wagon" as I was and were quite outspoken about it. Let's just say I caught my share of crap about it. Soon after starting high school, I was working Mom and Dad for a better, "cooler" ride.

After a year or so of "salesmanship" on my part, Dad took me to the local Ford dealership and bought me a two year-old 1974 Ford Pinto - it was the top selling car in America that model year. It was orange with a stripe across the rocker panel and it had a glasspack muffler (exhaust gas passes straight through the center of the muffler) which meant it sounded a tough as a Pinto can sound.

I was thrilled and immediately began customizing the Pinto. While for most high school boys, that meant headers, wheels, new carburetor, etc, for me it meant a new stereo - the first automobile cassette player in Chamberlain -  a 5-band equalizer/amplifier and speakers with enclosures. I'm certain that 200 decibels was within my reach!

Soon I had all the upperclassmen stopping me to look at the stereo in my Pinto. Shortly thereafter, they were asking for my help in securing and installing a stereo of their own. I sensed a business opportunity and before long I was ordering and installing stereos.

All the money I earned went toward upgrading my Pinto's system. It was my "demo" model and was certainly justified as I tried to expand my audiophile empire. It allowed me to own the best automobile stereo in town throughout high school.

This was much more important then than it is now. We didn't have iPods, Walkmans or even "boom boxes" yet. If we wanted music, it came from our cars. We would often spend hours "cruising" the streets of Chamberlain. That was a big part of our recreation. The cruising was much better with great tunes blasting from a hot stereo!

One summer day my Dad came home to find I had cut a hole in the roof of the Pinto with a jigsaw. He was aghast to learn I was putting a sunroof in my car. He was sure I had ruined the car. I did a good job though (after I endured fixing a couple leaks) and I'm certain I had the only Pinto with a sunroof. 

1974 Ford Pinto
I drove the Pinto to Creighton University in Omaha in the fall of 1978. While it was an adequate vehicle, there wasn't much room to transport my limited belongings back and forth (especially with those speaker enclosures in the way!). So while the Pinto was a great high school car, it certainly wouldn't do for a "college man" - or so I told my parents.

1978 Ford Thunderbird
After several months of "salesmanship" again, they bought me a one year-old 1978 Ford Thunderbird in the summer of 1979. It was a luxury car compared to my Pinto. The Pinto stereo certainly would not do in this car - I would need an upgrade. And so it went.

My college buddies called it the "Thunderchicken" but that did not stop them from piling in for our road trips to follow our beloved Creighton Bluejays basketball team play or to follow Bruce Springsteen's tours across the Midwest. We roamed from Denver to Chicago with five of us packed to the car. It was a good thing that our luggage was little more than a change of underwear and a tooth brush!

The "Thunderchicken" served me well through the rest of my college years. I drove it until I went to work for Lederle Laboratories and got a company car. I courted my wife in both the Pinto and the T-bird (it was a long courtship!). I'm pretty sure she wouldn't have acknowledged knowing me when I was driving the "Woody Wagon"!

Each of these cars is still a part of me. Unlike others from my generation though, I have not spent any time looking for these vehicles or a facsimile to restore. I have many fond memories of these vehicles, the places they took me, who was with me and the events we attended stored in my mind. That will do just fine!

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

July 2014 SDADA Column

This year, 2014, is the year of the automobile recall. It’s only July, yet vehicle manufacturers already have recalled more vehicles this year than any other year in history.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, there have been recalls for 37.5 million cars this year in the U.S. The previous record was 30.8 million in 2004.

Despite that fact that faulty ignition switches at GM have received the most of the attention, virtually every dealership in South Dakota has been affected by recalls. Ford, Chrysler, Nissan, Hyundai, Mazda, BMW, Toyota, Subaru, Honda, Lexus and Kia have all had recalls in the last couple of months on some model or part.

General Motors was the trend setter. After being burned by the ignition switch issue in the first month as CEO at GM, it would seem that Mary Barra has decided to get all of the recalls out of the way right away. GM vehicles make up about two-thirds of the vehicles that have been recalled with more than 25 million recalls in the U.S.

It seems other automakers are aggressively scheduling recalls now since GM is providing cover with all of their headlines. No automobile manufacturer want to be accused of dragging their feet after watching what has happened to GM.

Why all the recalls? Is it because cars are more complex (more electronics) than ever and there are so many things that can go wrong? Is it because of faulty workmanship at the manufacturer level? Is it, as Mary Barra suggested at GM, an "underlying cultural problem" (read "arrogance") for manufacturers? Is it because people are keeping their cars longer than in the past?

Is it because of less manufacturer oversight of suppliers than in the past? Is it because of faulty workmanship at the supplier level? Is it because of the regulatory environment in our federal government? Is it our litigious society?

I will suggest that it is a combination of all of the above factors and probably some other that I have not listed. But the bottom line is that our customers want and need information about their vehicles.

Despite the consistent numbing reports of more recalls on the evening news, the dealers have been the stars. We have taken this opportunity to talk to our customers. The dealerships have softened the blow for GM and other OEMs.

Dealers are the front line contact for the manufacturers in any situation like this. The manufacturer may call for a the recall, but people take their vehicle to our stores for the repair.

I hope that the manufacturers remember what an asset that the dealers are for them at times like this. How soon will they revert to their "what have you done for me lately" attitude that they usual exhibit.

Jeb Bush, Jay Leno and Beck Weathers to Keynote 2015 NADA Convention in San Francisco

San Francisco will host the 2015 NADA Convention & Expo from Thursday, January 22, to Sunday, January 25. This will be the 16th time that the NADA convention has been held in San Francisco since 1948.

The keynote speakers include former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and NADA Chairman Forrest McConnell, III, on Friday, January 23; Jay Leno and NADA Vice Chairman Bill Fox on Saturday, January 24; and inspirational speaker Beck Weathers on Sunday, January 25.

The American Truck Dealers (ATD) Convention & Expo runs concurrently with the NADA convention at the Moscone Center. The NADA expo runs January 23-25.

Attendee registration and housing opens on Monday, July 21. For more information, visit