I began working at a Ford dealership in Dallas when I was 15. I started in the make ready department: washing cars, installing hubcaps, and installing mirrors on trucks. It was also my job to make sure the lot looked good and all the vehicles were lined up straight. I worked daily in the summer, but when school started again I worked Saturdays and Monday-Friday evenings from 4 to 9 PM.
When I graduated high school, I attended Northwood University to get an associates degree in automotive marketing. I went to class from 8 to Noon, drove to the dealership and worked 1 PM to 9 PM daily and all day Saturdays.
I got my degree in a little less than two years, and when I graduated, the owner of the dealership took me to lunch and told me he wanted me to be his used car manager. I was thrilled, of course. One of my duties as used car manager was to appraise and put a value on all potential trade-ins. Salespeople would drive up to my office that was on the far side of the property, have an appraisal form filled out, and I had to come up with a number value.
This was the most difficult part of the job. People would want to trade in all sorts of things, motorcycles, boats, even tractors. No matter what it was, I had to come up with a value. If I overvalued the vehicle, we’d lose money when we sold it. If I undervalued it, I could cost the dealership the sale of a new vehicle.
The Long, Long Trailer Best Price: $9.84 Buy New $8.81 (as of 10:40 EDT - Details)
It was around 9:30 AM, seems like it was mid-week, in the summer of 1979, when I looked up and “the camper” was pulling up. I will never forget it. It was an overhead camper mounted to the chassis of a single cab one-ton Ford truck. It was tall, it was wide, and the sleeping quarters were above the cab and actually stuck out past the windshield quite a ways.
The customer who wanted to trade this rig in decided he was going to trade the truck and camper, and get a new truck to pull a travel trailer. Just a little trivia, at that time Ford Motor Company built and sold these campers through Ford dealerships. They were called Goldline campers, but I digress.
My first thought when the rig pulled up was “great-I have NO idea what this thing is worth”. No matter what I was appraising, it was protocol to drive the vehicle and I had a certain path I always took. It was about a 3-mile round trip, but there was a long straightaway when I could make sure the transmission shifted properly. I always wanted the salesperson to ride with me, so if there was an issue with the trade-in, the salesperson could explain it to the customer.
The Test Drive
The salesperson’s name was Marvin and he was one of the leading salespeople at the dealership. I would guess he was in his early 50s at this time, with thinning hair on top, and he looked like he played football in his earlier days. Marvin hated riding with me on appraisal runs because he said I drove too fast, and there was some truth in that.
When Marvin pulled up with the camper, I said “OK, let’s go drive it”. Marvin said “oh no, I’m not riding with you in that thing”. I said “come on, this big thing probably won’t even go over 35”. He relented and climbed in the cab. The truck had a big 460 V8 and when I hit the straightaway, I floored it. As if that wasn’t bad enough, I started moving the steering wheel back and forth. The big rig leaned hard left, then hard right, and then hard left again, you get the picture.
This was when Marvin lost his religion. He has both hands firmly planted on the dash, his eyes were as big as saucers, he is sweating profusely, and he is screaming, “Slow this thing down!”. I’d had my fun, so I slowed down, but when I pulled back into the dealership, I came in a little hot and the camper leaned hard to the left and I came to a quick stop.
Marvin sort of fell out of the truck and looked dazed and confused, muttering something about never riding with me again. It was time to try to figure out what this thing was worth. I had a relationship with an RV dealer, so my plan was to get them to give me a bid on the camper. I knew what the truck was worth, so I’d add the two numbers together and hopefully we could make a deal.
Before I called my RV buddy, I asked Marvin if the camper had a shower or not. Still breathing hard and sweat rings under his armpits, he said he didn’t know for sure and I said, “Well, let’s look”. I open the door on the rear of the camper to climb in, and my heart stopped.
Standing there, inside the camper, was a lady. To make matters worse, she was covered in milk, eggs, and flour. The same substances were on the floor, pots, pans, and bowls were everywhere. There was milk and eggs on the walls, on the couches, pretty much everywhere. It seems she was cooking breakfast for her and her husband while he was inside the dealership.
With a horrified look on my face, I started apologizing, saying “Oh, ma’am, I am so” and before I could get sorry out of my mouth, she said slowly and very determined “GET. MY. HUSBAND. NOW”. As we headed for the showroom, Marvin said, “You’re telling him, I’m not doing it”.
How The Story Ends
I sat down across the desk from the man who owned the camper and sheepishly said, “sir, I have some bad news to tell you about the test drive I took with your truck and camper”. He assumed there had been an accident, but I explained that wasn’t the case. I gave him some history on Marvin and me going on test drives, and I went through what I had done on the straightaway. It suddenly dawned on him his wife was inside cooking breakfast; you could see it on his face.
Suddenly the man starting laughing, I assume he pictured in his mind what the scene inside the camper looked like. I profusely apologized, repeatedly, and just asked the man this direct question: “Sir, what were you thinking you wanted for your truck and camper?”
He got his price immediately.
This is volume II in the “True Stories From a Former Car Dealer” series I am writing about experiences when I was in the retail auto business. If you missed last week’s column, titled The Lottery Winner, you can read it here.
Reprinted from Car Pro.