Thursday, June 11, 2009

On road to ruin, but makin' good time



It’s a dark day. Things I thought would last forever may not make it through the next week. Nothing is as it once was.
Back in those days, the new car models came out in the fall before the actual model year. In 1977 — As a public, we had recently weathered the disgrace and resignation of a U.S. president. Unemployment was 7.7 percent. Jimmy Carter was the new leader of the free world and a gallon of gas averaged 62 cents for regular. Cheryl Ladd replaced Farrah Fawcett on Charlie’s Angels and Linda Ronstadt sang the national anthem to open the World Series. Muhammed Ali beat (and I mean beat) Ernie Shavers in 15. General Motors also just introduced the first U.S. Diesel auto in the form of the Oldsmobile 88.
My dad worked at the local Chevy garage, as he had for decades, in our little town of Dolores, population 800, in the far, southwestern corner of Colorado.
On the showroom floor that fall, on the grey-enameled, shined and waxed floors — right next to the 15-cent, chest-type, pop machine that still stocked Orange Crush and Grape Nehi, was a genuine General Motors sight to behold.
The 1978 Corvette, with its new fastback rear styling, a redesigned one-piece fiberglass body, and star-wars-like modern interior complete with square-shaped speedometer, tachometer and even sporting a new glove box— was of course a rarity in that showroom. In its place was usually a practical four-door passenger car at a dealership that sold mostly pickups that would bang around the ranches, forests, oilfields and reservations in that area for years to come.
But this Corvette was even more.
For the first time ever, a Corvette paced the Indy 500 that year, and not only that, but it was the 25th anniversary of the creation of the Corvette. To celebrate 25 years of ‘vettedom, Chevy originally built 300 Pace Car replicas, complete with their own special VIN (Vehicle Identification Number) series. Demand for the replicas went crazy and the car company obliged by increasing production on the edition, little by little at first, but upon failing to keep up with that demand, Chevrolet finally decided to build 6,502 of the unique vehicles — one for every dealer in the country.
To me, the silver and black sports car, with red accents and grey, spaceship-like interior parked there on the showroom floor was emblematic of the times, the apex of the dealership’s influence and importance.
The ‘garage’ or the ‘shop’ as everyone I knew called it, was unique as well.
On the front corner, with double glass doors opening into the showroom, there was a couple of gas pumps that, if you pulled up — the owner, or the parts man, or the car salesman (or sometimes all three) would come out at the ‘ding’ and fill’er up, check the oil, clean your windows.
In addition to the three “up front” with the courteous pump attendance, I remember three mechanics, a greaseman, washrack/tire guy, a service manager, two bodymen, bookkeeper and maybe an extra man here or there at times. Men with names like Dale, Jack, Tom, Fred, Wayne, Hank and Bob would turn wrenches, change tires, pound out dents, replace windshields, drink coffee and tell stories all day, six days a week. It was hub of activity and a small-town economic force.
‘The shop’ has been closed for years now.
The men moved along to other shops and garages in other towns.
I haven’t seen full service at a pump in 30 years. No more 15-cent Orange Crush and Grape Nehi. No 62-cent-a-gallon gas. General Motors and other American car companies are broke and may not survive — but if they do, it will be with a lot fewer dealerships. I think that ‘vette is the last Indy Pace Car I can remember.
It is a dark day. Nothing is as it once was.
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