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Father was a Car Dealer

June 22, 2013

This was in the 1960’s.  His dealership was located in a rural village, at the edge of a military base.  The streets were all gravel roads.  It must have been the world’s smallest dealership, or at least the smallest one in Manitoba.  He sold the Chevrolet and Oldsmobile lines.  Most of the customers were across the street in the military base.  It was a single building with two gas pumps, one washroom, and a one-car showroom.  My father drove the one demonstrator.  The lot was surrounded by an array of used cars.  The service shop had one hoist, with room for two other cars inside.  There was one mechanic and one mechanic’s helper.  Behind the counter was a tiny parts department, stocked with popular parts for late-model Chevrolets and a few other cars.  It also featured Esso gasoline and other Imperial Oil products.

After I graduated from university with a BSc and didn’t have a job immediately, my father hired me as another mechanic’s helper.  I ran out to the gas pumps whenever a customer drove up to  buy gas.  Many of them bought gas wth a five dollar bill.  Some paid with an Esso credit card.  One day a customer asked me to check the tire pressure on his car and bring it up with the air hose if it needed it.  I was happy to do that.  When I was finished, he handed me a quarter.  I stared at it, not knowing what it was for.  Finally, I realized it was a tip.  It was my first tip!  I was sorry to leave when I found a permanent job.

When my father was away, I sat behind the counter in the office area.  One day a farmer came in, asking for a belt for a Honeyx Tractor.  I said “What kind of tractor?”.  I pointed out all the fan belts we had hanging along one wall.  I said “We only have belts for cars”.  “No”, he said, “it’s for a honey extractor”.  “Sorry”, I said.  “We still don’t have one”.

When I wasn’t watching the gas pumps or behind the counter, I was working in the shop.  I was the tire repair guy.  We put patches on the inside when tubeless tires had a puncture.  I also helped the mechanic sometimes.  I remember one incident where Wes, our mechanic, was removing a water pump.  He told me to hold onto it and not let it drop while he removed the bolts.  He told me that if I let go of it, it would hit the radiator and cause a leak.  He was right, because it slipped out of my hands and hit the radiator.  Water began to spurt.  Now, we’ll have to send the radiator away to get it repaired, he said.  I felt pretty bad at that point.  Then he tried adding a can of radiator sealant to the coolant.  The leak stopped!  That made me feel a bit better, but still displeased with myself.

I overheard one of the customers praising my father.  He said that it must be a wonderful thing to own your own business and be a new car and used car salesman besides.  He spoke of the freedom that it brought, and the people he had working for him.  Sure, my father said.  “I’m the sales manager, the chief salesman, and the service manager”.  “I’m also the guy who cleans out the washroom in the morning”.

One of our gas pumps, the premium one, only went up to 49.9 cents a gallon.  As the gas prices went up, my father would increase the prices on the pumps periodically.  One day he put the regular pump up to 49.9 cents, but could not put the premium pump any higher.  That meant he was losing a couple of cents a gallon on the premium gas.  I pointed out to him that this was bad economics.  He replied that it wasn’t.  He’d have to buy a new premium pump if he wanted to set it higher.  They were expensive.  He pointed out to me that his primary business was selling new and used cars.  Gasoline was only a convenience for the customers.  Besides, not many customers bought premium gas.  He was right, of course.

Beside the door in the office, we had an old coke machine.  It had a rotating drum that I would fill with the small glass bottles.  It only took dimes.  Ten cents a bottle!  They were nice and cold too.  This I saw as another example of bad economics, because he was paying twelve cents a bottle when the Coca-cola driver delivered cases of cokes.  I soon learned that this was another convenience for the customers.  He was right, of course.

His dealership was quite successful in selling new and used cars for quite a few years.  My father’s expertise was in assessing the value of used cars.  He would take a trade-in for a test drive, and by the time he returned, he would know what he could sell it for.  This all came to an end when we heard that the military base was closing.  My father, along with some other businessmen, made a trip to Ottawa in an attempt to pursuade the government to keep it open.  This was October 1970.  The base closed.  Father had to lay off first the mechanic’s helper and then the mechanic.  Finally he sold the property and moved away.  It was good while it lasted.

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