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” 

A Manchild In The Promised Land



GM Bldg

The “call” came four days later.  I was being summoned to “meet some people” at the Campbell-Ewald offices in the General Motors Building in Detroit.  The building, designed by Alfred Kahn, and opened in 1923, was at that time the largest office building in the world. I had been to the GM building before as a child. Where children in New York City might go with their parents to see the Statue of Liberty, we would go to the GM Building’s incredible lobby to see the new models, and visit the “Technology of Tomorrow” exhibit.  Two of the displays would entrance me for hours.  One was a rapidly spinning machine that looked something like a camshaft.  You could flick a switch and a strobe light would go on, seemingly freezing the spinning device.  You could see how high rpm’s took its toll on metal parts.  That sure made me want to drive fast.  My other favorite display was very simple.  There were two holes in a wall about twenty-four inchesGM Interior from each other.  A ball bearing would roll out of the hole on the left, drop about eighteen inches to where it hit a beveled block of metal that bounced the ball into a 45 degree arc back toward a spinning hoop.  The ball would arc toward the hoop, timed to pass through it perfectly, arc back down to another beveled block of metal that would bounce the ball straight back up, where it would disappear into the second hole.At any given time, there were four balls in the air.  I would stand there watching in dumbstruck amazement until I would realized that my drool was starting to pool on the floor!

But today, I was to put away the things of a child. The Flying Coffin flew me to Detroit, I found a nearby parking lot, and was entering the building when I realized that I had locked my keys in the car!  I ran back to the attendant who assured me that I had nothing to worry about.  I returned to the Cathedral of Capitalism.

Campbell-Ewald, most of it, was located on the fourth floor. When I got off of the elevator, my senses were immediately struck by three things: my nose sensed the mustiness of gravitas, my eyes saw a lot of marble, my ears could detect no noise. Were they closed today? I followed the signs that led to the Personnel Department. Dear reader, you’ll have to remember that this was 1971 BHR…Before Human Resources. I entered, introduced myself, and was asked to have a seat. Several minutes later the receptionist’s intercom buzzed, instructing me to enter the Sanctum Sanctorum. It would be almost another thirteen years before John Williams would introduce his Olympic fanfare, but I could already hear the kettle drums and heraldic trumpets playing in my head.  The office, the size of a racquetball court, was panelled in dark wood.  Harry Parker, Vice President of Personnel rose from his desk to greet me.  “Good morning, Tom, would you like some coffee?”  He could have been asking me if I wanted some heroin, or vodka, or a sharp stick rammed up my nose. I didn’t care.  I gushed, “Yes, thank you!”

We started the Dance of Ennui. I had a hunch this guy’s dad didn’t own a bar.  Harry explained to me how the the training program would work.  The five pauci electi would be cycled through the different departments of the agency, spending a month or two in each.  If, after a year, no department expressed an interest in retaining one of the trainees, that person would be bound and gagged and drop kicked into the Detroit River.  Harry explained that the salaries for all of the trainees were coming out of his budget.  After this pep talk, the recruiter was called in to give me a tour of the agency.  I said “Hello” to approximately 287 people.  After the tour I was dropped back at Personnel reception and asked to wait.  About ten minutes later I was summoned back into Harry Parker’s office.  Mr. Pink Pony was also there.

“Tom, ” Harry began, “we’d like to thank you for taking the time to see us today.”  Nooooooooooooo! They don’t like me.  “As you know, there are 25 men trying to get only five jobs.”  Nooooooooo!  Maybe I can my Sears repo job back.  “We really enjoyed meeting you today.”  Noooooooo! I think I saw a bar around the corner.  “That’s why we’d like to welcome you to the Campbell-Ewald Training Program.”   Nooo…Wait!!! Yessssssssssss!!  Right then, I was very happy that I was wearing a dark blue suit.

“We’re prepared to offer you an annual salary of $9400.”  Be still my heart.  That was an obscene amount of money!!  “If you work out after 90 days, we’ll bump you up to $11,200.”  The room started to spin.  Sphincter don’t fail me now.  “Is that acceptable, Tom?”  By the puzzled looks on their faces I think my answer came out of my mouth as, “Yerrrg.”  We all shook hands.  A secretary magically appeared with a Campbell-Ewald New Employee Handbook full of paperwork for me to complete.  “Can you start next week?” Mr. Pink Pony asked.  “I can start right now, if you want me to,” I blurted.  They both laughed.  “Ha-ha.  What a kidder.”

I attempted to maintain some sense of composure as I was escorted back to the elevators. The composure broke as the elevator doors opened in the lobby.  I ran to the nearest lobby payphone to call my parents. They were almost as excited as I was. I wasn’t sure if I didn’t hear my dad in the background say, “Well, that’s one launched.”  I called my girlfriend.  Her happiness for me was tempered by her concern that I was now going to be living almost 90 miles away.

Oh no!! My keys were still locked in my car.  I ran back to the parking lot, where I was met by the attendant who handed me my keys.  “How did you get them out of my locked car?”  “It’s my job,” he cryptically smiled and said.  Claude Brown wrote a novel in the 60’s, and even though I was light years from his experience, I felt like “A Manchild In the Promised Land.”

Next:  Into The Belly Of The Beast