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. 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 headed 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 General 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 dealership’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
Classic. Looking forward to reading about our times together.