The Bloom Starts To Come Off Of The Rose

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Wilted rose

Don’t get me wrong, I had the world’s greatest job. Lunches at Chasen’s and at the Polo Lounge in the Beverly Hills Hotel, dinners at Perino’s and The Brown Derby, Preferred “client” seating for tapings of The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, and the Tonight Show. Visiting relatives thought I was a god. When things got slow in the office, I’d go make dealer calls in San Diego, Palm Springs, or Las Vegas. Sometimes I would go into our small projection room and watch old Chevy commercials that were in our TV vault.  The commercials, stored on tiny 16mm reels, were classic examples of the days when you didn’t have to talk about your latest lease deal, your MPG numbers, or let the public know that they were seeing “professional drivers on closed roads.” There was Dinah Shore telling me to “See the USA in my Chevrolet” because “America’s the greatest land of all…Mmmwahh!” Pat Boone, the teen heart-throb, pitching Chevys on the Pat Boone Chevy-Showroom. Doug Mahoney was one of our West Coast TV production people. He came in while I was watching the classic 1964 “Castle Rock” Chevy commercial where the agency had perched a Chevy and a very terrified model on the top of Castle Rock, 1500 feet above the Utah desert floor. Doug worked on the commercial.  As the helicopter flies over the top of the rock,

we see a model, Shirley Rumsey, smiling at the camera. The dulcet tones of Joel Aldrich, Chevy’s long time announcer, telling us that “Chevy stands alone.” What you don’t see are the high winds blowing around at that altitude (notice Shirley’s hair and her dress), the harness that Shirley wore under her dress which was bolted to the frame of the car (preventing her from being swept over the side), or Doug, hidden in the trunk with a walkie-talkie, holding on to her legs through a hole in the back seat. Shooting finished late in the afternoon.  The helicopter pilot said that the winds had picked up and flying Shirley and Doug off would be too dangerous.  His suggestion was that the two of them spend the night in the car.  Doug was all for that.  Shirley said that she’d rather jump over the side than spend the night in the trunk of a car with Doug. They brought them down. In college, I did a parody of this spot for a mattress company as part of an advertising assignment. The professor gave me a C-, saying that it was “utterly unbelievable.”

But everything wasn’t food, fun and games. GM, and the other Detroit car makers, were becoming slightly annoyed with what they thought was a passing fad…Japanese cars. After a bumpy start with the Datsun Bluebird, and the Toyota Toyopet, these companies, along with Honda, offered products that became hotBluebird sellers in California. Chevy’s response was the Vega. Instead of building a small car from scratch, take a big car and shrink it, they thought.  To stem what was being called the Japanese invasion, Chevy started the California Marketing Project. They assigned a department head level manager to run it out of the Regional office in San Francisco. In addition to my regular weekly report, I was assigned the responsibility of writing weekly reports for the California Project. What kind of ads were they running? How heavy was the media spend? Did their engines, like the Vega’s, blow up? I even mentioned a blatantly xenophobic memo that was now circulating in the West Coast zone offices, written by a Zone Manger in the Cincinnati Region. He sent it to all of his dealers, decrying the fact that even though America had won WWII, the Japanese were again attacking the good old USA by “lobbing thousands of tons of steel onto our cities.” I received a call from someone in Detroit.  “Knock it off!” I was told.  “Your reports are too negative and they are upsetting a lot of people back here. Can’t you talk about anything positive?” I was going to mention that new “import fighter,” the Chevy Monza, that couldn’t be designed and engineered for California without having to choose between the Vega engine, and a monster 350 cubic inch car-fire(5.7 liter) V-8 that was designed to go into cars weighing a ton more.  I loved LA restaurants too much to bring that up. Also, GM was getting bad press in Southern California.  To comply with California’s tough emission laws, GM’s post combustion catalytic converters would heat from 750 to 1000 degrees. This made parking your car in any dry grass during the SoCal brush fire season somewhat problematic. The late Kenny Hahn, an LA County Supervisor at the time, invited the press to a demonstration. A GM car was parked, with the engine running, near some dry grass. Within minutes, the reporters got their stories.

I’d write reports talking about the great price/value story the Imports had. I’d be scolded and told that their value story was only due to an undervalued yen. I would say that the mope from Culver City who’s shopping for the best deal doesn’t really care about the yen/dollar exchange rate. Detroit made a lot of money on option packages. They also offered a fistful of trim levels.  The dealer was quite happy if you drove away in a new Impala Luxus Elite Brougham Tourismo SS Squire Spyder Custom Towne Car.  The Imports were offering an average of three trim levels, all fairly well-equipped. Usually: L, S, and LS. I was smart enough to realize that, like a Great Lakes ore freighter, GM couldn’t turn around on a dime. The models coming out the next year had been decided upon almost three years earlier.

The ad agencies handling the Imports weren’t slouches either. When Chevy or Ford would drag their heels on renewing a California sports buy, the Imports, with fewer layers of people who could say “No” at the client, would pick them up.  The same was true when Chevy got out of outdoor.  All the franchise freeway and airport signs they had were picked up by Datsun and Toyota.

See-no-evil-hear-no-evil-speak-no-evil-monkeys-14750406-1600-1200When clients came out to the West Coast, they were surrounded by people who didn’t want them to think that anything was wrong.  Not all Regional and Zone people were like this, but the few who weren’t were easily shouted down. The general feeling was that consumers would come to their senses and return to the True Faith. Even if it meant playing the “Buy American” card.

Next: “You’re Here To Do What?????” 

More Tales From the Darkside

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woman-screaming1

I wasn’t the only one who witnessed the terror of a visit from a high ranking Chevrolet executive. Our Campbell-Ewald guy in Chicago saw his own psycho-drama played out, all because of an innocent, last second decision. When a Regional Manager would visit a Zone Office city, cars and drivers met him at the airport, his luggage whisked away to his hotel and neatly put away in dressers and closets. His schedule was handled down to the nth degree. The angst was ramped up when the National Car or Truck Sales Manager would visit. Bottles of his favorite booze and lots of ice were in the room, as well as shrimp and crab claws on ice. When the General Sales Manger came…well, hooweeeee!  Police barriers were set up, children were taken out of school to line the motorcade where they would dress up like Dinah Shore and sing the “Baseball, Hot dogs, Apple Pie and Chevrolet” theme. Imagine, if you will, what sphincter tightening and pants dampening fear gripped the Zone when the capo di tutti capi, the General Manger of the Chevrolet Motor Division came to town. It happened on a sunny Saturday in October.  Bob Lund, GM VP and General Manager was flying to Chicago to attend the Northwestern FootballWildcats vs Edna Ferber Writers’ College Flying Scribes football game.  It was being broadcast as the ABC NCAA Game of the Week.  Chevy pretty much owned the broadcasts.  Opening and closing title billboards, lots of spots, and the presentation of the Chevrolet Offensive and Defensive Player of the Game Scholarships. Bob enjoyed being down on the sideline after the game for the televised presentation of the checks. Not since D-Day had America seen this massive mobilization of men, machines, and eggs Benedict. The plan was coordinated down to the most minute detail.

Mr. Lund would be driven from his home in Bloomfield Hills to Willow Run Airport outside of Detroit.  He would board the GM plane for the flight to Chicago’s Midway Airport. There, he would be greeted by the Assistant Zone Manager. Two District Managers were assigned to carry any bags Bob had, and then the four people would drive to The Palmer House Hotel, where police had cordoned off the street and parking was reserved in front of the building. Another District Manager would escort the party to a waiting Grand Ballroom Dinnerelevator where they would be whisked to the 4th Floor Grand Ballroom. He would be greeted by the Zone Manger, the Regional Manager, Chicago-area Chevy dealers, and a photographer from GM PR. An incredible buffet brunch had been laid out. Champagne, juices, eggs Benedict, lox and bagels, breakfast meats, an omelet station, baskets of seasonal fruits, assorted crepes, lobster thermidor, and two full bars filled with premium liquor. To add to what would Mariachi-band-460x300undoubtedly be a festive occasion, the Zone had hired a mariachi band…Los Musicos Ambulantes de La Calle. At 12:15, the motorcade would leave the Palmer House and head to the stadium in Evanston. As a failsafe, each point of travel in Chicago was being covered by a District Manager who was near a pay phone to give any updates to a direct line in the ballroom. The planning was perfect. Nothing, absolutely nothing, could go wrong.

The October Saturday broke sunny in Chicago, and several hundred miles away in Bloomfield Hills. The GM air crew had filed their flight plan into Midway airport. Bob Lund was brushing his teeth, awaiting the arrival of the driver. Everything was on schedule…until the phone rang.  Bob’s wife answered. “Bob, it’s for you,” she said.  “It’s Bill Fleming.” Bill Fleming was an ABC football announcer,  He also lived in Bloomfield Hills, very close to Bob Lund.  They were good friends. Bill Fleming was also a pilot, and owned his own airplane. “Bob,” Fleming said,”are you going to the Northwestern game?” Bob answered that he was. “So am I,” Bill said.  “I’m flying over there out of Pontiac airport.  This was only a few miles from Bloomfield Hills, not the long drive to Willow Run to take the GM corporate plane. “And, I’m flying directly into the airport in Evanston, so we can avoid all that Chicago traffic.”  “Great!” BobDSC_0057 said. I’ll be right over. Bob called Willow Run, telling him he wouldn’t be flying today.  As he was their only flight, they all packed up and went home.  Bob told his driver to take the day off. Bob Lund and Bill Fleming took off from the Pontiac airport, and effectively severed the Achilles tendon of the Chicago Zone Extravaganza.

Meanwhile, back at the Palmer House, the party had started. The steam trays had been fired up, the screwdrivers and bloody marys were flowing, and the Zone Manager was passing out tickets for the game. A suite had been set up in the stadium’s press box for the Chevy brass. Bob Lund was supposed to be landing at 10:30 AM. It was now 10:45 and the District Manger had not called from Midway. No problem, maybe there was bad weather over Muskegon. It was 11:00 when the Assistant Zone Manager called in from the airport.  “He’s still not here”, he said. A look of worry appeared on the Zone Manager’s face. When it was 11:10, the news that the plane wasn’t in yet began to spread through the room. Someone decided to call the GM Air office at Willow Run. With the sunken_cessnacrew long gone, the only person there was a dispatcher who had just arrived.  He checked the paperwork and told the Zone Manager that the plane “probably” left about two hours ago…more than enough time to get to Chicago.  Oh no!!! To already terrified minds, this could mean only one thing: Mr. Lund and the GM Corporate plane had gone down over Lake Michigan! “Alert the FAA.” “Have the Civil Air Patrol look for oil slicks on Lake Michigan.” Because this had happened on his “watch,” the Zone Manager knew that his career was over. A command center was quickly set up in the ballroom.  The GM PR guys said, “Don’t talk to the press until we have more facts.” The two District Managers  would stay at Midway to act as liaison with the FAA. Pockets of quiet crying broke out in the ballroom.   The Chicago Police had to be notified because the officers out in front of the hotel had only been paid until 11:30. A shroud of dismay settled over  the Grand Ballroom. The mariachi band playing Mi Rosa Salvaje Irlandes didn’t lift any spirits. It was now 12:45 and everyone at Chevrolet was trying to resign themselves to the tragedy. Then, the phone rang.  The Zone Manager grabbed it. “Any news?” he said.  “Uh, sir, this is Mike Swenson. I’m the District Manager stationed at the Northwestern stadium. Uh, sir, I just ran into Mr. Lund.  He’s really upset and wants to know where the hell all the Chevy people are.”

“Everybody to their cars!” he yelled.  “He’s not dead, he’s at the stadium.”  There was a mad rush toward the door.  Our Campbell-Ewald guy, who didn’t receive a ticket to the game, asked the Zone Manager, “Sir, what do we do with all the food and liquor?” “Send it back,” the Zone Manager yelled back over his shoulder as everyone raced for the elevators.  Our guy looked at the hotel’s banquet manager who was personally surprising the extravaganza. He slowly shook his head. “You guys own it and this room until 2:00.” With that, he ordered his staff to clear the tables.  “Wait,” our guy said. “If Chevy already paid for it, you can’t touch it until 2:00.” “Oh, you’re going to eat it all?” the manager sniffed. “Yes,” said our guy and a Chevy District Manager who had been left behind. The two of them tried mightily, but by 1:20 they were overstuffed and quite drunk. Then the idea hit them. It would be a shame to waste all this food and booze. The District Manager stayed behind, while our guy went out of the NorthwesternFootball2006hotel onto Monroe St., and down to Michigan Ave., inviting homeless people to go to the 4th Floor Grand Ballroom of The Palmer House. There they would find all the food they could eat. A small stampede was generated.  When the folks got to the Grand Ballroom, the mariachi band struck up a local favorite, Vientecinco O Seis A Cuatro.  A lot of people were able to eat that day. The Zone guys were only an hour late for the game. Everyone laughed about the “crazy mix-up.” And, nobody got fired.

Next: The Bloom Starts To Come Off Of The Rose

 

Power Politics

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Soviet Officials on May Day

When I started my career adventure, I set out under the erroneous assumption that everyone got along, that everyone worked toward mutual goals, a spirit of collegiality drove corporate decisions, and a general feeling of Gemütlichkeit guided every business action. I was disabused of that notion starting in 1974. Sometimes various forms of power were flexed by individuals and groups to serve different agendas.  I present three examples:

#1 MINE IS BIGGER THAN YOURS

In the early 70’s, Chevrolet was bathing itself with sports sponsorships.  College football, NFL football, MLB baseball, and even the Soap Box Derby.  Network TV sponsorships, network radio sponsorships, local TV and radio sponsorships. They even had celebrity endorsement deals with former Olympian Jean-Claude Killy, and an up and coming Buffalo Bills star named O.J. Simpson. Chevy was spending a lot of money on these properties.  The challenge was “Are we maximizing our investment?”  That translates into, “How much can we squeeze out of the buys?” Campbell-Ewald Autry Hotelcame up with the perfect solution.  One that would “maximize the investment” as well as allow everyone to get out of the snow and ice of Detroit in January and play golf in Palm Springs. The “Chevrolet Sports Merchandising Conference” was invented. Chevy was sponsoring the California Angels.  Gene Autry owned the team, as well as Golden West broadcasting, which owned many stations receiving Chevy media dollars. Gene Autry also owned the Gene Autry Hotel in Palm Springs.  “Let’s hold the conference there!” Invitations (summonses?) went out to all of the station reps carrying a Chevy-sponsored team. They were being invited to attend the Sports Merchandising Conference and show what they had been doing to “maximize the buy.” The first conference got ugly.  Some teams and stations had lots of money to “maximize” the buy.  Many times the money was buried in the cost of the media sponsorship. Some stations didn’t. KMOX in St. Louis had the money. For their presentation, they flew out the late, great Jack Buck, the voice of the St. Louis Cardinals. Everyone would play golf in the morning, with the first presentation of the day scheduled for 1 PM.  Jack and the KMOX guys were waiting for us when we entered the room, having just completed our grilled hamburgers and bloody marys.  Once we had all been introduced to him, we took our seats. Jack began by telling us how honored KMOX and the Cardinals were to be associated with Chevrolet. He talked about being #1 in whatever you do.  He mentioned the Chevy logo on the outfield wall, and the in-game freebie promos. He then cued lou-brocka projector which showed Lou Brock breaking the single season stolen base record. “Lou Brock is a champion,” Jack said as we watched the moment, “he knows how to win.  He knows how to……. WAIT!!! Why am I telling you this, let’s have Lou tell you in his own words. Guys, please welcome Lou Brock.” On that cue, Lou walked into the room from behind the screen. He acknowledged our standing ovation.Brock-a-brella He spoke about being a champion, being #1. He then personally signed replica bases for each of us and gave each of us one of his novelty Brock-a-brellas. The KMOX presentation had now gone 25 minutes over its allotted time. Nobody cared. This was how to “maximize the buy.” The bar had been set. The next presenter was the National Sales Manager for WCCO, Minneapolis. He tentatively approached the podium.  He had the look of a man who knew that he was doomed.  “Hi, everybody. Thanks for sponsoring the Twins. We are really, really thankful. He then reached inside his jacket and pulled out a small Twins’ pocket schedule. “Uhh, we printed the Chevy logo on 300,000 pocket schedules. Uhh, we’re really, really grateful to you folks. Hey, what a beautiful hotel you got for us here. Did I say how really, really grateful we are? Well, thanks.”  He crept away from the podium to polite and mercy applause. He was probably on his way to the garden to commit ritual seppuku to atone for his shame. I turned to one of the Campbell-Ewald heavy-breathers who was here from Detroit.  “That poor devil, he didn’t have a chance.” He responded, “Yeah, but you can bet your ass that next season we’ll get a lot more out of WCCO. That’s why we have these conferences.  Nothing pushes you to perform like the fear of being shamed in front of your peers.” Hmmmmmm.

#2 “HEY, WHAT’S YOUR NAME AGAIN?”

I was headed back to Las Vegas to call on the local Chevy dealers and get input for my weekly reports. The calls were pretty uneventful, until I got to the dealership owned by Fletcher Jones. Jones was a successful, multi-franchise dealer.  His son now runs a very successful Mercedes dealership in Newport Beach, CA.  I announced myself at the Chevy dealership reception desk. After a few minutes I was led into a massive office, festooned with sales awards, trophies, and autographed pictures of celebrities. I introduced myself.  He asked me why I was visiting him.  I said it was to provide “input to Detroit.” He then leaned across the desk and stared directly at me.  “When is Chevrolet going to get it through their thick heads that Las Vegas is an important market to them and add us to their Top 25 market list so we can be part of their spot TV buys? Ford is killing us.” I had an answer.  Sort of. I knew that Las Vegas was on the cusp.  There were three markets all vying for the cherished final 25th spot. “Well, Mr. Jones, right now it’s close, Las Vegas is right in there..”  “Humph,” he said, as he swung his chair around toward his credenza, picked up his phone and punched in three digits. He was business-man-fear-nailbiting-300x214speed dialing someone. I could hear someone answer.  “Hey, Fletcher Jones here, I want to talk to Bob Lund.” For those who haven’t seen previous posts, Bob was a GM VP and General Manager of Chevrolet!  “Hey Bobby, Fletcher Jones here.  How are you and the wife?  Yeah, still hot out here. When are you going to come visit? Bob, I need to ask you a question.” Jones turned to me and said, “Hey, what’s your name again?”  I told him. “Bob, I have one of your Campbell-Ewald guys by the name of Tom Cavanagh here who says that you guys are adding us to the Spot Market list.  Are you?” What if Lund said no?  Was this how my career was to end…limping out of a dealership in Las Vegas? Maybe I’m not too old for med school. “You are!!! Bob, that’s great news.  I’ll tell my local agency to plan around your buys. Take care, bye!”  Bob Lund had just arbitrarily made the decision that our media scholars were slaving over. Fletcher Jones wheeled around toward me with a smile on his face.  “Son,” he said, “sometimes you have to know when to push ’em.”

#3 WRAP YOURSELF WITH THE CLIENT

This example is pretty straightforward. Align yourself with powerful, or soon to be powerful, people who work at the client. Dick O’Connor, who started at Campbell-Ewald as a trainee in 1956, was the Chevy Account Director. He reported directly to Tom Adams, the chairman. As I had mentioned, being a field guy was the best way to pick up on rumors about change. Information leaks didn’t move from Detroit out, but from the field in. Chevy had just promoted a fellow to the job of General Sales Manager. It was their second highest position. His best agency buddy was Paul John, who worked for Dick O’Connor. The new GSM was traveling to all of the Chevy regions to meet the staffs and key dealers. Paul John accompanied him. My fellow field guys who had attended the meetings told me that Paul was being introduced as the Chevy Account Director!!  What?? We had received no company memo. What was going on? The regional meetings ended just as Campbell-Ewald was calling us to Detroit for Greek civilization, Plinth of kouros statue, bas-relief depicting wrestlers, circa 510 B.C., detail, from Kerameikos necropolis in Athens, Greeceour field meetings. We were gathered in the conference room on the first morning, waiting to hear from our Field Director. Instead, in walked Tom Adams and Dick O’Connor. Tom spoke to us. “You may have heard some wild rumors out there that there is a new Account Director. Well, as long as I have anything to say about the running of this agency, Dick here is our Account Director.” That’s what we wanted to hear!  We all applauded. Two days after I returned from the meetings, I got a copy of an all-company memo.

TO: The Staff

From: Tom Adams

Subject: Dick O’Connor Promotion

I am pleased and proud to announce the fact that, effective immediately, Dick O’Connor is being promoted to the position of Vice Chairman of Campbell-Ewald. Dick has served us for almost 20 years. In his new position, Dick will oversee the day-to-day operations of the agency as well as our business development activities. His skill and business acumen have proven to be great assets for this company. Through his leadership, our relationship with our Chevrolet client has grown ever stronger. Please join me in congratulating Dick on this well-earned promotion. By the way, Paul John takes over as Chevrolet Account Director.

Well, at least this meant that the client was happy.

Next:  More Tales From The Darkside

The Rocket Car

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Rocket

Here’s my story it’s sad but true, it’s about a car I once knew.  It took my love then ran around, through every light in town…Hayp, Hayp. Bumda hady hady hayp hayp… Well, most of you know the lyrics to the rest of the song.  This is the story of a car that was born too soon.  If Charles Dickens were to write a story about an orphan car, battered by cruel fate, and then cast aside, he would write about this car.  Except, in this story, there is no heroic redemption as in “Great Expectations.”  Our story begins in 1969 in the top floors of the GM Building. GM was looking for an alternative power plant to the internal combustion engine that would provide great low-end torque, and a true sporty car feel.  NSU, of Germany, had developed a rotary engine, the Wankel engine. Felix Wankel was a brilliant engineer.  He was also a high ranking SS officer during WWII. During the war he developed a revolutionary rotary 1974_GM_Rotory_engineengine.  After doing his prison time following the war, he went to work for NSU Motorenwerke AG. The modern Wankel was shown to the world in 1960.  Mazda, seeing its benefits, bought a license to manufacture it. GM saw that Mazda had a hot little number with the technology. In 1970, GM paid NSU $50 million to license the rotary engine.  They were going to put it in the Vega. BUT…the GM version had durability problems. They went back to the drawing boards and decided to use it in a model, still in development, to be launched in late 1974.  They went back to NSU and paid another $10 million to re-up the license.

The model in development was a sporty 2+2 hatchback based on a Vega frame. It was going to be called the Chevy Chaparral.  Jim Hall Racing of Midland , TX., had long partnered with Chevy to supply him with engines and parts.  Chevy made a deal with him to use his Chapparal name.  Then, two things happened that would doom the as yet unborn child.  GM couldn’t solve the durability problem with the Wankel, and the Arab oil crisis made the Wankel’s mediocre MPG numbers problematic.  GM dropped the Wankel. The other was that Jim Hall Racing decided that they wanted more money for their Chapparal name. GM had already spent more than $60 million on an engine they weren’t going to use, they weren’t going to spend more money on a name. Chevy needed a name. And it had to be about 5 inches long, as the dies for the sheet metal forms had already been made. Someone in Chevy Marketing suggested that they let customers name their purchase, providing them with sheets of stick-on letters. That idea died when management begin coming up with some of the possibilities. Then, someone realized that they still held a license for the Monza name.  Monza being a trim level name for the ill-fated Chevy Corvair.  The unborn child would be christened Monza.

Only one hurdle remained.  How would the child be powered? The base engine would be the Vega inline 4-cylinder aluminum block engine. The upgrade would be a V-6 that Buick offered.  There was one, teensy, tiny, microscopic, picayune problem with all of this.  California,car_exploding where GM was hoping to repulse the Japanese car invasion, had air quality requirements much more stringent than federal EPA standards.  At the time, GM’s solution was to strap on post-combustion air pollution devices.  This caused nasty back pressure problems.  The Vega for sale in California had a unique problem.  They tended to blow up. The aluminum block engine would heat up and expand, causing the cylinders to jam in the combustion chamber, causing the rods to bend and blow. Not good.  What about the V-6?  Again, Fate had dealt a cruel blow to young Pip.  The engine was “dirty” in the state of California, and couldn’t be sold there.  What was a mother to do? Again, American ingenuity came to the rescue. A GM engineer had measured the square foot area of the Monza’s engine well.  The GM plant in Tonawanda,NY., had excess capacity. They built the monster 5.7 Liter, 350 HP, V-8 engine that went into Corvettes and the Chevy Caprice.  The engine developed 250 HP. GM discovered that this engine (clean in California) would fit, just barely, into the Monza engine well. Chevy made it a California-only engine option.  There were a few problems to this, however.

The Monza had been designed to accommodate a much lighter Wankel engine. It could handle the inline Vega engine,35150-SuperTomcat.tif but the huge V-8 weighed hundreds of pounds more than the front end was designed to support. A Monza with the big engine looked like it was always driving downhill, as the weight forced the rear end into the air.  This was an engine that was built to power cars weighing almost one ton more than the Monza.  Because the car was so much lighter, it was only available with an automatic transmission. Revving it up with a stick, would have torn the gears apart. Being the savvy auto consumer that I was, I bought one!

What a car!! Pulling up to muscle cars at stop signs, knowing that I had a comparable engine, but weighed as much as a ton less, challenging them off the stop light was child’s play. I didn’t drive this car, I aimed it.  Being a rear wheel car with it’s butt up in the air was no handicap.  Pushing the accelerator sent 250 horses into the back seat. I was the King of the Road until one day I heard a fwap, fwap, fwap. TireThe front tire treads had been worn off on the inside, exposing the steel belts. The car had less than 10K miles on it.  The Firestone dealer honored the warranty and gave me new tires. Six thousand miles later, the same thing happened.  I went to a different Firestone dealer for new tires. I figured out what was going on.  Since the front suspension was burdened with hundreds of pounds of extra weight, it sagged and pushed the front tires into a bowed position.  I was only driving on the inner six inches of tread! No wonder the tires were failing so quickly. I also discovered that the engine’s radiator, designed to cool a much smaller engine, was the size of a small Frisbee.  Another vestige of an earlier incarnation.  Maybe Dickens shouldn’t have written the story of the Monza. Maybe Mary Shelley should have.

Next:  I Visit Sin City

Baseball, Something, Apple Pie, and Chevrolet

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1993-Chevrolet-Best2

America’s Bicentennial was approaching.  Marketers all across the country were wrapping themselves in all things American.  So it was with Chevrolet.  Campbell-Ewald had come up with a catchy ditty called “Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, and Chevrolet.”  Words by Campbell-Ewald writer Jim Hartzell, and music by Ed Labunski, the commercial launching the theme line has been voted one of the best in American history.  Chevrolet was selling 3 million cars and trucks a year. They were running on all cylinders…sorry, I had to say that. Chevy had introduced the Monza 2+2, a sporty hatchback “import fighter.” Early in 1975, they introduced a notchback coupe version. The South Gate GM Assembly facility was now making “H” body vehicles, including the Monza, in anticipation of the nation’s move to smaller cars. Bob Lund, GM VP and General Manager of the Chevrolet Division was going to visit Southern California to inspect the plant, and tour local Chevy dealerships to see how they were promoting the launch of the new Monza Town Coupe. This news hit the LA Zone like a thermonuclear bomb.  They were being visited by “the man.”  All hands on deck! Spare no expense! Cordon off Interstates! Alert GM PR! Order the food! Kill the fatted calf!

The South Gate GM facility was Located in South Gate, CA., a few miles southeast of downtown LA.  Built in 1939, it had churned out Buicks, Oldsmobiles, and Pontiacs for 36 years. Now it was going to make small cars. The South Gate High School band was on hand, playing the “Baseball, Hotdogs” music. The mayor and city council of South Gate were there.  The press was there. I was there. The Zone wanted me to attend all of the day’s activities so I could include a glowing report of them in my weekly report to Detroit. The Regional Manager had flown in from San Francisco and was waiting for Mr.Southgate Lund’s arrival at LAX. District Managers were poised to take Mr. Lund’s baggage claims and rush his luggage to the hotel. A fully loaded Chevrolet Caprice Classic was waiting curbside with the a/c running for him to exit the terminal building and be whisked away in a motorcade to South Gate. When he entered the car, a Zone staffer made a call to a land line in an office in factory, telling the Zone Manager that “the package had left the building.” About 45 minutes later, the motorcade drove through security and entered the main parking lot.  The band struck up.  Mr. Lund was introduced to the dignitaries. A parade of Monza Town Coupes festooned with red, white, and blue ribbons drove by the reviewing stand.  The speechifying began. A sumptuous buffet had been laid out in case Mr. Lund was hungry. Unfortunately, he wasn’t.  Unfortunately, the buffet had been put out two hours earlier. Unfortunately, it was already 94 degrees. Unfortunately, every fly south of the Santa Monica Freeway had already found the buffet. Unfortunately, I could see the rare roast beef slices apparently moving on their own.

Once everyone had been duly overcome with bonhomie, it was time to visit Chevy dealerships.  We all piled into a luxurious GMC motor home someone had cleverly named Chevrolet One.  We only lacked the F-14 fighter escort as we gmc_motorhome_12headed out onto the freeway. Onboard, more food and a full bar added to the jocularity. Bob Lund turned to the Zone Manager and said, “Stop and park the motor home 1/2 mile before we get to a dealership.” “Why, sir,” was the Zone Manager’s response. “Because this isn’t a Chevrolet motor home”, Mr. Lund said. “Sir, Chevrolet doesn’t make a motor home.  This is a GMC motor home, made by GM.  The same company as us,” the now sweating Zone Manager offered. “I know that! But GMC also makes GMC trucks which compete with our Chevy trucks, and I’ll be darned if I’m going to show up at a Chevy dealership, riding in a competitor’s product. We’ll park 1/2 mile away from each dealership and walk!” Everyone put their drink down. We would be doing a lot of walking today.

That day, now remembered fondly as the “Great South Gate Death March,” started to unravel. We would park the motor home and trudge 1/2 mile to a dealership in the now 96 degree heat. The dealership staff would be shocked, and somewhat terrified, to see this bedraggled group of pedestrians walk into their stores. Each dealership, thinking that perhaps Mr. Lund hadn’t eaten in several days, had put out their own lavish buffets guarded by management keeping hungry sales and service people away from the food.  We’d all nod approvingly, wait for the dealer to have his picture taken with Mr. Lund, and then turn to trudge back to the motor home. Fortunately, since I hadn’t eaten since the night before, I was able to squirrel some cornichons into my trouser pocket. We were all hoping that the day couldn’t get worse. That hope was dashed at the next dealership.

The dealer shook Mr. Lund’s hand and said “Sir, welcome to our dealership.  We have something very exciting to show you. Boys, bring it out!” From around the side of the dealership came something that even I, with my limited automotive knowledge, knew was a big no-no. Pulling up in front of the CordovaGeneral Manager of Chevrolet was a brand new Monza Town Coupe that had been customized with a landau roof and an opera window.  The Chevrolet people averted their eyes in anticipation of what they knew was coming.  “So, Mr. Lund, what do you think?” the dealer cluelessly asked. Bob Lund turned to the dealer and asked his own question, “What’s wrong with the product we painstakingly designed and built for you?”  The entire crowd went silent. The party was over. We shuffled down the street back to the air conditioned bosom of Chevrolet One.

Of course, every dealership we visited that day had a variation of the current Chevy theme. One dealership we visited was having a promotion. Showroom visitors that day received a plastic baseball, a Little Debbie apple pie, and a hot dog.  The problem was that the dealer wanted the event to be in full swing, so he wasn’t giving anything away until the Magical Mystery Tour showed up.  In this pre-cell phone age, he could only estimate our arrival.  We were early.  The music started. the people rushed in. Baseballs started flying. Their sales manager realized that he had three cases of hot dogs that hadn’t been cooked yet. Emergency!!  I told him not to worry. That GMC motor home parked 200 yards down the street had one of those new-fangled microwave ovens on it.  He could take the hot dogs down there and nuke them all in a jiffy. About fifteen minutes had passed when Mr. Lund decided it was time to head to the next dealership. As we pulled away, I noticed a horrified man running next to the motor home, waving his arms in the air.  It was the Hot Dogsdealership’s sales manager! It was about five hours later when we began to notice the smell. The pleasant smell of rotting processed meat. It was traced to the microwave, where two dozen shriveled hot dogs were found, and to the cabinet under it, where two and a half cases of hot dogs were resting next to the motor home’s muffler.  “What are these doing here?” everyone asked. The driver shouted back over his shoulder, “Some guy brought them on this morning. He was here for about three minutes when he heard the loudspeaker calling him to the showroom floor as he had a customer waiting.  He never came back.” We had driven off with the dealership’s hot dogs.  Oh well, I hope they had a successful “Baseball, Apple Pie, and Chevrolet” sales event.

Next: The Rocket Car

 

The Case Of The Missing Cars

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The answer is: McCloud (Dennis Weaver), McMillan and Wife (Rock Hudson and Susan St. James), and Columbo (Peter Falk).  The year is 1973. A few years earlier, NBC and Universal signed a multi-year deal to develop feature length mysteries for television.  The “wheel” format was born.  Sensing a winner, Campbell-Ewald inked a deal making Chevrolet the “presenting sponsor” of the Sunday Night Mystery Movie, as well as giving Chevrolet automotive exclusivity in the program. “Exclusivity” is an arcane term used years ago when a sponsor could purchase an exclusive sponsorship to lock out category competitors.  Today a sponsor can’t even get the fall-back “ten minute separation” cushion.  This was also back in the era when clients had some control over the programming. Before each episode was shot, we received a script to make sure there was nothing “objectionable” in the show. Also,angels no Chevrolet could be used depicting the commission of a crime, or in any other negative light.  Chevy wasn’t the only one doing this. Did you ever notice that every car parked outside of Charlie’s office in “Charlie’s Angels” was a Ford?

To sweeten the deal, Chevrolet agreed to provide 40 loaner cars made up of different Chevrolet models.  They were to be used as cars for the filming of the shows.  They were generously sprinkled throughout each exterior scene.  Everyone was happy. Until the start of the 1974 model year.  Chevy was anxious for us to recall the current fleet and replace them with 1974 models.  I was tasked with calling our Universal contact to arrange for the fleet to be returned to Chevy’s LA Zone Office.  I was told that they would all be returned by the end of the following week.  I informed Chevy. On the appointed day, I called Universal and was told that the cars had been returned. Late that afternoon, I was informed by the Zone that only 26 cars had been returned.  I called Universal, and left a message for my contact.  The following Monday I called him again. “Uhhhh, Mike, you only brought 26 back.  We’re missing 14 vehicles.”  Mike actually seemed surprised.  “Tom, that was all of them.  There aren’t anymore in our garage.”  Hmmmm.  “Mike, we’re missing 14 cars.”  “Tom,” he said, “what’s the big deal?  GM is a big company.  What’s 14 stupid cars?”  I instantly knew where they were.  Universal heavy-breathers had gone to the production vehicle candy store and were personally driving the missing units.  I’ll get back to you, Mike.”  I called the Zone.  They said that they would “handle it.”  Two hours later, I received, via fax, a copy of a letter messengered to Mike at Universal.  The letter listed the 1012or_11_+1973_chevy_blazer+right_side_viewVINs (Vehicle Identification Numbers) of the missing cars.  It also listed the model, color, and option package of each one.  They were all Chevy Blazer 4X4s and Corvettes.  Surprise, surprise, surprise!!!  The letter went on to state that at 12:01 AM the following Wednesday, these units were being reported to the California Highway Patrol as stolen vehicles. Less than an hour later, I got a frantic call from Mike. The Universal lawyers were apoplectic. The missing cars had to be found.  They couldn’t have some big exec arrested for driving a stolen vehicle.

The next day 12 of the missing 14 were turned in.  We were still missing a Blazer and a Corvette.  The Blazer was located at the Napa vineyard a Universal director. It was being put on a truck and shipped to the LA Zone.  One to go.  A fully-loaded 1973 orange Corvette.  “Mike, GM’s gonna find it.” He was terrified.  The next morning I got a call from a famous producer with the motion picture division of Universal. He had given the Corvette to his girlfriend as a “gift.”  He explained that he couldn’t give itCorvette back as it was a gift to her. If he took it back, his girlfriend might do something crazy…like tell his wife! I explained to him how you can’t give things away that don’t belong to you. He then said that he’d pay for it. The Zone came up with a price…well above MSRP. The next day a cashier’s check was delivered to the Zone.

The bloom was now off the rose.  Chevy was starting to put more money into sports programs like NCAA Football and NFL Monday Night Football, both on ABC.  One of the nails in the Sunday Mystery Movie coffin came on january 27, 1974. That night’s episode of McMillan and Wife was about Rock Hudson’s character attending a reunion of his college football team. One by one, the attendees were being murdered. In buddy-mcmillan&wifeone scene, an attendee is crossing the street when, suddenly, a car races around the corner and accelerates straight toward him.  As the car approaches the poor soul, the Chevy bow tie logo is clearly scene on the grill of the advancing car. It was a 1974 Chevy Caprice.  The murderer used it to run the man down.  SPOILER ALERT!!!….the murderer turned out to be that legendary screen villain and evil-doer, Buddy Hackett.  The following Monday morning was highlighted by many angry calls from GM and Chevy, as well as a lot of professional grade ass covering.  The hit and run scene was in the script.  Universal knew the rule about not using Chevy products with bad guys driving them. They had always obliged by having the villains drive Fords.  Someone at Universal was getting even for the stolen car fiasco!  Chevy did not renew their sponsorship of the Sunday Mystery Movie.

This did not, however, mean that Chevy was done loaning out cars.  They became the “Official Vehicle” for the Glenn Campbell LA Open…now known as the Northern Trust Open.  Several weeks after Buddy Hackettgate, I was told that some gentlemen from the LA Junior Chamber of Commerce were in the lobby to see me.  Sensing the opportunity for a possible free lunch, I had them sent to my office.  I was surprised by their mission.  Apparently, someone in Detroit had given them my name as the LA Open contact.  The Junior Chamber was the service organization handling the staging of the tournament. They presented me with a list of vehicle needs for the tournament. I had been told that we only needed one vehicle which was to be parked in front of the clubhouse.  Not so.  To get the “Official Vehicle” honor Chevy had to provide,in addition to a boatload of cash, 20 vehicles for “tournament officials” to use as courtesy vehicles.  Here we go again!  We scrambled to find 20 cars to loan them. I reminded them that Chevy kept records of the VIN numbers on each car.

The tournament went off without  a hitch. Nineteen of the cars were returned within two days of the tournament’s finish. On Wednesday morning I received a call from the Chamber member who had given me the list.  “Hey Tom,” he said, “uhhh, we want to bring the Chevy Caprice back, but there’s a slight problem.”  Uh oh.  “Last night we were kind of celebrating, and, uh, we were looking for a place to have dinner.  We pulled up in front of The Palm and told the valet guy we didn’t have reservations and were going to just run in and check it out.”  “And…..?” I queried. “Well, you see, we were in such a hurry, and we’d already stopped at a few places, that we all jumped out of the car and accidentally locked the keys in the ignition.”  This wasn’t going to end well. “You see, the valet guys were getting mad because we were blocking the driveway, and we’d left the engine running. So we, so we found a rock and smashed out the driver’s side window to get back in the car.  The door frame got dinged a little too. We’ll pay for all the damages.  Sorry.” I told him that I’d call him right back and phoned our show car manager. “Don, we’ve got a slight problem.  The Chamber guys smashed out the driver’s sidelets-make-a-deal-doors window of the burgundy Caprice Classic with the white vinyl roof.” “Oh shark” (he really didn’t say shark), he screamed. I borrowed that car from Let’s Make A Deal.  That’s the grand prize behind Door #2!  They tape in three hours.  We can’t have the door open up on an empty turntable.”  There was no time to fix the car.  I told the Chamber guy to deliver the car directly to the studio.  We explained our predicament to their production people. Our solution was to have one of the models sit behind the wheel with her forearm resting on the doorframe…which had been cleared of glass, smiling broadly at the camera. If this didn’t work, I was sure that I was going to be saddled with the blame. The moment of truth arrived. Mrs. Fendeker, from Ottumwa Iowa, and dressed as an ear of corn, had to choose.  “Don’t pick Door #2, don’t pick 2,” I prayed.  She picked Door #3 and was on her way to Hawaii.

Next:  “Baseball, Something, Apple Pie, and Chevrolet”