Confessions of a Car Man


Chevy Volt: A "Star Trek" Moment

A couple of years ago I wrote a post called “Chevy Volt: When They Build It, Will They Come?” or something like that. It had to do with the general acceptance of an American car company doing something innovative and new. At the time my opinion was that the propeller heads out there would never accept a new vision from Detroit simply because they are politically opposed to American cars in general.

Well, the Volt is here, and I have some new thoughts. When I first sat in a Volt and turned the sucker on—that’s right, you don’t start it, you turn it on like a flat screen television—I was struck by the impression that for the first time in 40 years of selling iron, I was sitting in something that was brand new: the automobile reimagined.

When I drove the car I was not only impressed by its performance, I had a Star Trek moment. GM is taking us where no man has gone before, and I’m freaking impressed! It drives like a dream, handles like a sports car (well, kind of) and goes about its business with efficiency and grace. A truly impressive ride.

Critics have pointed out that the Volt is impracticable from a financial standpoint, and they are right. It’s impracticable as hell! At $43,000 or so its price is a mind bender even taking a possible Federal tax credit in consideration. But that’s not the point. If we are going to someday rid ourselves from foreign oil, if we are going to be (and I HATE this terminology) going to be a truly “green” country, the Volt and its successors are going to lead the way.

When people first bought cars more than a hundred years ago, they, too, were impracticable as hell. It was a rich man’s hobby. It wasn’t until Henry Ford brought his Model T to the common man that investing in the new technology of the automobile made sense. So too with the Volt. At the beginning it’s going to take a few visionaries with some extra cash to get this sucker on the road, put it through its paces and figure out if it’s really going to work.

When GM filed for bankruptcy it was a wakeup call for them. It was do or die. And by God they are finally doing it! With new vehicles like the Cruz and the Equinox leading the way, they are broadening their sales base and inspiring people who wouldn’t have been caught dead on a domestic lot ten years ago to come in and see what’s happening.

I know things are changing. I sold a Cruz to a Chinese guy! When I started selling Chevys fifteen years ago, one of their appeals was that Chinese people don’t buy them. I’m not going to turn this into a rant about the Chinese—let’s just say they’re a little hard to deal with. If they start coming in, it’s a sure sign that the “times they are a changin’”. (It’s also a sign of future headaches!)

Back to the Volt. Last Saturday I took an environmental scientist from U.C. Davis for a ride. He and his wife were impressed. She kept asking me, “Are you sure the engine isn’t on?” Yes, I was sure, and I’m also sure of this: regardless of what Consumer Reports Magazine says, the Volt is the way of the future. The Volt is here to stay. And with it the Chevy bow tie.

I’m just glad I’ve lasted long enough in this business to see it.

Driving With Assholes

I knew I was screwed the moment the Harley’s pulled into the lot. Every Car Man knows that a motorcycle ups are just about the worse you can get—only a notch above a goof on a bicycle. The second clue came when they parked the two bikes under the used car display tent, a spot recently vacated for a demo ride. People who don’t park where they are supposed to are usually a problem.

There were four of them, a married couple on one bike, their two teenage children on the other. They crawled off the Harleys and began the traditional motorcycle ritual: slowly removing their helmets, their obligatory black leather jackets and matching leather chaps. Full Harley-Davidson regalia. Not a good sign.

“Please don’t go to the Camaros, please don’t go to the Camaros,” I chanted under my breath.

They went to the Camaros.

It was my up. There was no way out of it. I let them wander around, hoping that at least they would land on a six-cylinder model. Those people are usually pretty reasonable. But no! They landed on the white, 400 Horsepower SS. The ultimate Mooch Magnet. Shit!

Two weeks before I had had an incident with that same white SS. A younger couple had emerged from a beat up old Honda and announced. “We want to drive a Camaro!” Notice he didn’t say, “We’re thinking about buying a Camaro”, or “We’ve been looking all over for a white SS Camaro.” No. They just wanted to drive a Camaro. And me, like a fool, didn’t question their intentions. I just took them out in a Camaro.

The guy took it up to 100 MPH on the freeway. I urged to slow the heck down which he did without protest, but he then proceeded to tell me that he really wanted a 4-door performance car like a Pontiac G8. “Then why the hell are you driving this Camaro?” I asked myself. I pointed out that they didn’t make Pontiacs anymore, but he was undeterred. “They’re plenty of them on the internet,” he stated firmly. I felt like I the victim of a one-night stand!

I should have learned my lesson with that one. Over the months since my return to selling Chevrolets an idea had been forming in my mind: stay away from SS Camaros. But whore that I am I couldn’t resist the idea that the next one to look at one might actually buy one.

My man on the Harley was about 40. His name was Ben. Ben was one of those guys who is hanging onto the last vestiges of his youth by his fingertips. I knew this because he glowed over the Camaro, saying it was “sick”. “Sick”, I gathered meant it was good. What grown man uses an expression like that?

His wife, Beth, was a sweetheart. Apparently she was the one who wore the maturity pants in the family, and better yet the car was for her. She looked at the SS warily. When she told her husband that a six-cylinder model would be just fine for her, he told her in no uncertain words that if she were to buy a Camaro, it would be a SS. I saw a conflict there, but when she said she loved the white color my hopes brightened. A demo ride was in my future.

I took Beth and her daughter for a ride leaving Ben and his big galoot of a son back at the dealership to drool over Corvettes. Beth felt the need for speed, telling me that she drove to work and back at 85 MPH every day. The fact that this was 20 miles over the speed limit on most California Highways didn’t seem to faze her. But she was polite and drove responsibly. It was when we circled back to the dealership the trouble began. Ben and the galoot wanted to drive it too.

Ben asked if I would sit in the back seat. His galoot of a son was too big to fit back there. I wasn’t happy. At age 61 I don’t load and unload in the back of a Camaro very well. Why couldn’t Baby Huey stay with his mom? Well stupid me, I smelled a potential deal and with great effort, I stuffed myself in the back next to the daughter.

Sometimes in the life of a Car Man you reach a sudden realization: you are driving with an asshole, and Ben was a textbook example. He hit speeds of 100MPH plus, bobbing in and out of slower traffic as if he was participating in his own private Daytona 500. I was in the back, ass puckered, my view of the road ahead blocked by his massive son, praying that I wasn’t going to die.

I told him to slow down. He shot me a quick glance and slowed for a bit before once again punching the accelerator. The kicker came when exited the freeway. When he made the right turn at the stoplight he lit up the tires, the car momentarily going sideways before righting itself through the miracle of Stabilitrack. I snapped. I told him he was abusing the freaking car! This started a brief shouting match between me, Ben and the galoot. He denied he was driving recklessly stating that this was a performance car. How the hell was he going to tell if the car was worthy of his consideration if he didn’t drive it like one?

Duh, because it’s not your car?

When we pulled into the lot I was done with him. I parked the Camaro feeling anger that I’d fallen for the Camaro SS death ride once again and depressed that I sure as hell wasn’t going to sell a car to this all American family. (Damn, that sounds desperate, doesn’t it?) This delusion carried itself even further when Beth, oblivious to the drama in the SS, asked me if she could drive a six-cylinder. And you know what I did? You know what I freaking did? Once again, whore that I am—

--I took her for a ride!

While we were gone something wonderful happened. Ben decided it would be a good idea to complain about me. He marched into the showroom demanded to speak to a manager. This was big mistake because the manager is a guy named Bill McKenzie and Bill—

--likes to argue.

I’m sorry I didn’t hear what was said. My fellow salesmen filled me in later. Ben stated his case and Bill blasted him with both barrels, reminding the jerk among other things that I had a family of my own and had the right to not get killed on a test drive with a jerk. By the time Beth and I got back from a brief drive in the Camaro I knew I would never sell, Ben was spinning like a top. There he was under the used car tent, angrily strapping on his leathers, yelling that they’d go to Sacramento to buy the God damn car!

I stood back and said nothing as they mounted their Harley’s to leave. I was having a philosophical moment, wondering why the hell I was still putting up with all this BULLSHIT after 40 freaking years. I guess I should have invested more when I was a kid! Needless to say, I have not demoed a Camaro SS since then, and if I ever do, I’m going to read the customer the riot act before we ever get into the car.

The life of a retail transportation consultant is not an easy one.