Monday, May 4, 2009

Pontiac, Chrysler, and the Good Old Days

All the news stories this week about Chrysler, and the demise of Pontiac, Saturn, and Hummer got me to thinking about “The Good Old Days”. 

The Good Old Days were usually NOT as good as we remember them.  Sometimes, they don’t even exist at all, except in our fervid imaginations.  I was telling Nathan (who is 25) last night:  my entire generation grew up thinking “America” was “Leave It To Beaver”; a world where Mom did her housework in silk dress, heels, and pearls, with perfectly coiffed hair, in a large, beautiful home with all modern conveniences; where Dad went to his office at 9, left at 5, and lounged in the living room in his sweater and tie while waiting for that delicious dinner Mom had prepared (after returning home from the Beauty Parlor); where the two cute kids learned life’s lessons gently while growing up in a beautiful universe where everybody was just like them:  rich, white, content.

The alternative to this universe was that of Mayberry, North Carolina:  quiet, tree-lined streets, colourful characters on every corner of the picturesque town; the most serious threat to the status-quo a possible brick through the window from Ernest T. Bass or a speeding New Yorker running the town’s only stop light (Danny Thomas, in the episode from Make Room For Daddy wherein Sherriff Andy and Mayberry’s cast of characters was introduced).  We ALL wanted to live in Mayberry, who wouldn’t???  It was perfect (just like Mayfield for the Cleavers, or Hillsdale for Ozzie and Harriet; heck, even the Ricardos moved to suburban heaven by packing up Little Ricky, Fred and Ethel and moving to Westport, Connecticut!).

None of this existed, except on television.  We, however, now pine for The Good Old Days---that weren’t.


All of the preceding by way of introducing my main topic:  the demise of an era in automotive history.

Chrysler has a somewhat checquered past; they’ve been at or near bankruptcy many times over their 80+ year life.  It’s a shame; I like Chryslers (really!).  They made very nice cars, usually more affordably than GM and Ford, with superior engineering.  I’ve owned several, and loved every one of them.

Pontiac, though, is tough.  I’ve owned one Pontiac my entire life, a 1980 Pontiac Bonneville Brougham, much more luxurious than the 1983 Cadillac for which I traded it.  It was a DIESEL, one of the infamous GM diesels which were converted 350 gas engines; those either lasted 300,000 miles or were junk in less than 30,000.  Mine was the former variety.  Not much pickup, but 30 mpg in a 4,000 lb luxury yacht. 

Pontiac is tough for me because my extended family owned a Chevrolet dealership for decades, and I can empathize with the Pontiac family dealerships that will be closing shortly.

“Truman Baker Chevrolet” is the way the cheery receptionist would always answer the phone there.  My great-uncle by marriage, Truman Baker, was a doughboy in World War I.  Returning from Europe, he faced the same trouble every other returning soldier has faced:  no jobs, nobody wanted him.  He found work in the oil fields of East Texas, saved and scraped as much money as he could, then went home to Searcy, Arkansas to go into partnership with his brother on a brand-new Chevrolet dealership.  At first, it was just the Baker brothers, a mechanic, and an office lady (a very young lady named Frances Ahlstrand, who worked for them until she died in the 1980’s; Frances was wonderful, I can still hear her voice).  Later, Truman bought his brother out.  His brother’s son, Wallace, wound up owning Wallace Baker Chevrolet in nearby Beebe.

My uncle, Horace Tarkington, married Truman and Roxie’s daughter Edna, went off to/came back from WWII, and went to work selling Chevrolets.  The company prospered, and my cousins Jim and Jeff came along, then I came along.

I remember going to Searcy to see them; Jeff and I were always close, and we had a lot of fun at “the company” playing in the cars.  We’d go out to the showroom and sit in the new cars, pretending to drive them.  Usually, somebody would grab us and lecture us affectionately about playing with the merchandise.  (To almost the last day they owned the Chevrolet/Buick company, whenever I’d go to Searcy, we’d go play in the cars—except, as adults, we’d have access to the KEYS…we must’ve test-driven every product Chevrolet made from 1970 or so through 2005).

Show day (new model introduction) was always a big deal.  They’d cover the windows of the big glass showroom downtown at Main and Race, hiding the new cars.  On Show Day itself, everybody would get All Dressed Up, there would be refreshments and sometimes live music, and the entire city would show up to see the new cars.

My cousins never got rich off the car company, but it made them all very, very comfortable.  Big houses, LOTS of cars, boats, lake houses, etc.  “Small Town Gentry”. 

In the 1990’s, they bought the Chrysler dealerships (Chrysler, Plymouth, Dodge, Jeep, Eagle), the Mazda dealership, and the Buick dealership in Searcy.  They moved the company out to a big new “family of dealerships” on US 67/167 (freeway).  I bought one of my one-and-only brand-new cars, a 1999 Chevrolet Monte Carlo, and drove it off the showroom floor on “Show Day”, the day the dealership opened.  That purchase later saved my life, as I was involved in an 80-mph collision with an 18-wheeler (he flipped over and landed in my lane) on the way to a Razorback game; the entire side of my car was destroyed, but I had not a scratch (the only damage was to my nerves, but I recovered). 

But all good things must come to an end, and the family sold the dealerships to one of these conglomerates for a nice profit.  They bought the Lincoln-Mercury dealership, sold it, and now have a “Used Car Lot” (Tarkington Automotive) specializing in late model, low mileage slightly used Luxury Cars (they are the unofficial BMW/Mercedes/Jag dealer in Searcy). 

My friend West Hornor in Helena West Helena, Arkansas has a very similar experience; his family owned a (rare) all-lines GM dealership there; he still has that dealership but is primarily a Toyota dealer now.  Still, West had the same experience---playing in the cars, growing up nice in a nice small town. 

Now we’re seeing the end of all that.  The article that sparked this reminiscence was this one in the New York Times, about a remarkably similar Pennsylvania Pontiac dealer. 

Ahh, the Good Old Days.  Sometimes they really WERE that good.


  1. Yes, the good ole days. I am working (at least in my mind) on a post of one of those characters that all small towns have. In this case, Dr. Bledsoe, the foot doctor.

  2. My grandfather opened Barnes Brothers Chevrolet in Neosho Mo. in the mid '30s. He moved there from Anderson Mo., where he had worked for L. L. Barnes Chevrolet (his older brother.) After WWII, my father joined the business

    They ran Barnes Bros until 1958, when they sold the dealership. I can well remember the building, the show room, etc. I still want to drive GM vehicles, but it is getting harder and harder. They no longer make a model that I want.