The Car Salesman
September 7, 2009 10:29 AM   Subscribe

Interesting and somewhat nostalgic look at the car industry with a particular focus on the car salesmen. The history of the car salesman is shorter than the history of the car, but perhaps by no more than a few weeks. (The invention of the car was only slightly more significant than the invention of the market for cars.) In fact, we have a fairly good idea of who that first car salesman was: John North Willys

posted by robbyrobs (24 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
The Rust-Oleum anecdote is hilarious.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:37 AM on September 7, 2009

For those interested in the history of the car salesman, it doesn't really start until midway down with the paragraph that begins with robbyrobs' pull-quote.

Also, the essay references the article "Confessions of a Car Salesman" which was previously featured on metafilter.
posted by deanc at 11:34 AM on September 7, 2009

everything done and said by a car salesman—the test drive, the patter about city mileage versus country, the talk about air bags and safety—is simply an effort to get the buyer into the room where my father went back and forth at Foley Cadillac. Everything said before the room is like the forgettable small talk around the keg at the frat party—upstairs, in the room, with the lights out, that’s where the true artist, otherwise known as the closer, is revealed.

I read this and could only laugh - in my art gallery days this tactic was the exact same. The salesmen on the floor would make small talk about the art until the moment they innocuously said "let's step into the viewing room."

There was this plush leather couch that leaned way back, and the lights would dim down except for the one wall where the painting was hung, illuminated, like it was imbued with the essence of Jesus himself.

And then the closer walked in and shut the door behind him, the gloves came off, and people were separated from their money over some schlock giclees. I was not at all surprised when I found out that the best gallerists were formerly car salesmen.
posted by infinitefloatingbrains at 11:41 AM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is fanastic, and I just came to metafilter to post this.
posted by empath at 12:03 PM on September 7, 2009

This is brilliant, and I'm not even a third of the way through the article. Great stuff.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 12:44 PM on September 7, 2009

Very very entertaining read, thanks for posting.
posted by vito90 at 1:27 PM on September 7, 2009

God, commission paid dealerships are such a scam. I've heard that car companies are actually prevented from owning and operating their own dealerships by law. I haven't taken the effort to look into my particular state, but this is the sort of shit that Libertarians should be talking about instead of gold standards and eliminating the minimum wage.
posted by pwnguin at 1:47 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Ralph Spoilsport Mantra
posted by hortense at 1:59 PM on September 7, 2009

I fucking hate the car sales process.

Why can I buy a computer or do a business deal for similar amounts without problems, yet when buying a car every salesperson tried to obfuscate, deceive and delay? At one place we found a car we liked. We even told them we liked it, had cash, wanted to cut a reasonable deal, didn't want to buy any extras under any circumstances, and would be insulted by any 'sales theatre'. And then they still did that patronising routine, pretending to go and see the manager, making us sit through patter, presenting figures in misleading ways, etc.

In the end I felt I had to squeeze them for an extra couple of hundred pounds and fixing some scratches to make up for the ordeal. They could've done a deal in half an hour for more money and had a happy customer but just couldn't let go of the idea that they're some kind of master manipulator.

"What does the demise of the car salesman mean?" the article asks. For me, it means getting a warm glow inside at the idea of them being squeezed by the internet, recession and environmental concerns.
posted by malevolent at 2:05 PM on September 7, 2009 [5 favorites]

Yep, found it. KS 8-2438:
(a) Except as provided by this section, and notwithstanding any other provisions of the vehicle dealers and manufacturers licensing act, with respect to motor vehicles, a first stage manufacturer of vehicles or second stage manufacturer of vehicles, factory branch, distributor branch, or distributor, distributor or factory representative, may not directly or indirectly:

(1) Own an interest in a new vehicle dealer or dealership;
(2) operate a new vehicle dealer or dealership; or
etc etc. I can't imagine what the purpose of this is, other than to raise the prices of cars in the state on behalf of dealers.
posted by pwnguin at 2:07 PM on September 7, 2009

Very interesting piece. I'm not finished with it yet, but just so far I've added one of the books the author referenced—Get a Horse, by M.M. Musselman—to my library list, if I can find it.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:46 PM on September 7, 2009

I also recommend this guy's book Sweet and Low, a history of American sweeteners from inside his own family, which invented the titular pink packet.

Quite impressed by this article, which made me think at first -- I had missed the byline -- that Bill Bryson was writing this. "No, not the requisite amount of loathing for the topic," I thought, and checked the top again.
posted by Countess Elena at 3:03 PM on September 7, 2009

Car Salesmen - a photo essay
posted by robot at 3:07 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

I wondered if there would be any outcry for the "poor dealers" when the auto factories yanked the plush carpet out from under many of them. It hasn't happened yet for exactly the reasons outlined by malevolent - the condescending treatment with stress on the con. You know you are being worked and it is insulting and infuriating and unfortunately unavoidable.

So the dealerships went down = schadenfreude!
posted by Cranberry at 3:10 PM on September 7, 2009 [1 favorite]

I still don't understand why people purchase new vehicles. is it their love for the brutal purchasing process? their joy over the massive loss in value a car accrues over the first year? the unwillingness to settle for something just as good but a year older?

okay, maybe I would purchase some cars new but I'm very partial to one-to-two year-old rides sold by private parties and the silk-tie crowd plays a huge part in this.
posted by krautland at 3:31 PM on September 7, 2009 [2 favorites]

Krautland: I think a lot of people actually buy new cars because they think the used-car purchase process to be more fraught with uncertainty and possible conflict than the new-car one. (It is, after all, the "used-car salesman" that is the pinnacle of the stereotype; "new-car salesman" just doesn't carry the same connotation, at least to the same degree.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 4:01 PM on September 7, 2009

I like being able to know how a car was maintained or not. I don't want to find out, like my brother did, that a mouse ate a hole in his RX-7's air filter and made a home in it during prior ownership. Especially with sporty cars, you never know what the previous dumbass owner did to it. I also don't like private party transactions that refuse to deal in anything other than cash, claiming they don't like banks (we both know they don't like taxes), and are prone to disappearing.

But now is a pretty good time to buy; when I bought there were some 2008's still on the lot unsold in the model I was looking for, and the general downturn motivated some pretty good deals like 2.9 percent financing and whatnot. Plus the whole cash-for-clunkers required new car buys.
posted by pwnguin at 4:22 PM on September 7, 2009

okay, maybe I would purchase some cars new but I'm very partial to one-to-two year-old rides sold by private parties and the silk-tie crowd plays a huge part in this.

As a side-note I think it'd be cool if the time frame for owning a car would to expand out to 8-10 years. Promise not to make cosmetic changes every 2-3 years so your owners won't feel the need to upgrade (or more likely move to a cheaper car so they can upgrade every 2-3 years). Give us a Morgan or Bugatti Atlantic in a classic chassis and do away with those ugly Japanese designed cars. Make it really easy to do maintenance and repairs. A good breakup of the car industry from its finance divisions, dealerships, mechanics and suppliers would go a long way to creating something the benefits the consumers and not just the industry.
posted by geoff. at 4:49 PM on September 7, 2009

I still don't understand why people purchase new vehicles. is it their love for the brutal purchasing process?

(1) They plan to live with the car for ten years, fifteen years, or longer, so controlling the color, options, and so on of the car is more important than a first-year loss of value that won't be realized. By the time they sell whatever car it is, it'll pretty much be scrap.

(2) The current model year has features unavailable in previous years.

(3) The make and model in question does not actually suffer a massive loss in value in its first year, only a proportional one. These last two were us, the last time we were looking -- getting a year-old one would have saved us only about $2K, and the new ones had side impact airbags or some other safety feature that the year-old ones didn't.

(4) The car in question is sporty enough that a year-old car is particularly suspect as a "thrash it for a year and get rid of it" car, and will require expensive mechanical checks to verify that it hasn't been thrashed to hell and back, at which point the savings largely evaporate. I might like a WRX or Lancer Evo, but the hell would I buy a used one without a very thorough going-over.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:06 PM on September 7, 2009

I wondered if there would be any outcry for the "poor dealers" when the auto factories yanked the plush carpet out from under many of them.

There wasn't any outcry from the public, but the truth is that the dealers are part of that "small town elite" who are plugged in to the local political community and the sort who have their local state legislator and congressman on their speed-dial. Many of them are the big fundraisers, and it's a reason why states have a book full of laws protecting them from the car manufacturers.
posted by deanc at 7:06 PM on September 7, 2009

In addition to ROU_Xenophobe's list, I think there's an obvious additional option, namely:

(5) They're perfectly aware of the cost of buying a new car, but do it because in our society—or at least in certain segments of it—cars are a status item. They are demonstrating their wealth to their community by going out and replacing a perfectly good car with a brand new one every three years, just because they can.

Personally I think the car-as-status-item thing has diminished quite a bit recently (maybe due to the rise of credit putting new cars within the reach of more people, making them less luxurious?) but I still know of people who do it, typically with the same brand of car. E.g. new Lexus every 3 years, new Mercedes C, new Buick, whatever. Not typically younger people, though. But there is definitely still a segment of society to whom the ability to purchase a new car every few years is a big deal.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:27 PM on September 7, 2009

In fact, we have a fairly good idea of who that first car salesman was: John North Willys

Uhm, no, in fact. Before Willys, there was Emil Jellinek, father (quite literally) of Mercedes.
posted by Skeptic at 1:56 AM on September 8, 2009

Kadin2048: I think you misunderstood me: it's the salesdouches I avoid. I buy from private parties. the only exception were saturn dealers, who unfortunately had no product I desired, and porsche, who just don't haggle. the price we tell you is the price it is and that's it.
posted by krautland at 4:37 AM on September 8, 2009

On rereading, I understand better what you mean.

I can see how going the private-party route avoids the sales ritual, but I also think that to some people—people like my father, who the father of the author in the article reminded me a lot of—the sales ritual is at worst a minor nuisance, at best an opportunity to match wits with and attempt to chisel a few hundred bucks out of some poor sop of a salesperson. It's practically sport.

Yes, it's stupid and anachronistic; there are lots of things that you can buy now that are more expensive than a car and aren't really subject to negotiation (although I have been surprised at times to discover that, when you're buying $10k worth of something, suddenly there's flex in the price that wasn't there before), but at least for some car buyers it's an expected part of the experience.

(Saturn and Porsche are interesting because they both consciously avoid it, although for very different reasons. For Saturn, I do believe it's honestly an attempt to make the process less intimidating. In the case of Porsche, I can only imagine it's because if you're the sort of person that wants to dicker over a few hundred dollars of accessories, clearly it isn't your sort of car...bad enough having to ask the "price", but haggling! How bourgeois.)

But in the mid-market brands, particularly the domestics, buyers—some, anyway, like my father or the author's father—expect the ritual, and would be offended if they were told that the price were non-negotiable.
posted by Kadin2048 at 10:41 AM on September 8, 2009

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