A First Truck and a Gruff Old Guy in Suspenders

Our family recently purchased a new (to us) vehicle, and it got me thinking about the first vehicle I ever purchased on my own. 

I was a college student, 22 years old, and had already been married a couple years.  I was about to graduate with my teaching certification and begin my first real teaching job.  Like all good Americans, I decided to spend my first paycheck before it was ever in my pocket and go pick out a nice truck.  At the time, I was driving a little grey and red Mazda B2200 pickup that my dad had picked out for me at a humble used car lot on Kearney Street in Springfield.  It was good transportation, but I was ready for something full-size and a little newer!

I pulled into the Ford dealership in our little town on a cold Saturday morning.  I found a modest truck on the lot that I thought was in my price range, and went inside to ask about it.  I stood around in the show room for awhile, but all the salesmen were busy and no one was waiting on me.  (Or perhaps they correctly surmised that I didn’t have any money.)

Then, all of a sudden, a gruff old man of imposing size in suspenders and a ball cap appeared.  He practically snarled at me when he introduced himself and asked if he could help me.  I recognized his name as the owner of the dealership.  He asked me what truck I was interested in.  I told him.  He asked me if I had a trade.  I pointed through the window at my little Mazda pickup out in the parking lot.  He grabbed his jacket and growled, “Let’s go.”

Because it was a super cold morning, I had left my little pickup running.  Immediately, the old man was suspicious, “What did you leave her running for?  Afraid she wouldn’t start back up?  Is there something I need to know?”  The questions took me aback.  I wasn’t used to having my integrity questioned so directly.  I replied, “No sir.  She starts fine.  I just left it on to keep her warm.”  “Alright,” he said, “I’m driving!  Hop in!”

I sat down on the passenger side, the old man behind the wheel, and he proceeded to drive my little pickup all the way around his dealership in the parking lot.  He didn’t say too much while he was driving. I suppose he was listening for any sounds that would alert him he had a lemon on his hands.  It took all of five minutes.

When we made it back around to the front side of the dealership, he asked, “What do you think your truck is worth?”  I had looked up the Blue Book value of my truck before I had left the house and told him with all the firmness I could muster, “Blue book says it’s worth $2200.”  He furrowed his brow and looked at me and said, “Son, let me tell you something.  If you’ve got a truck that runs good, it’s worth $3000 all day long.  Don’t let anyone ever tell you any different.  I can sell this little truck for $4500 any day of the week.”

Then he said, “I know you said you were interested in this truck over here, but I want you to look at this other truck.”  He pointed to a truck that I knew was out of my league.  A big, shiny, red F-150.  Just four years old!  Granted, it was a two wheel drive rather than the coveted four wheel drive.  And it was a regular cab with a long bed, rather than the more popular extended cab with a short bed.  And it also had a lot of miles for a truck that new – almost 100,000.  But the old man knew it would be a perfect truck for a young man with no kids who just wanted to haul a canoe and an occasional piece of furniture.  (And I suspect he wanted it off his lot as well.)

Still…  The price was $11,500.  Way out of my budget!  (That price seems laughable now.  The price of trucks has come up a lot in the last 16 years.)  I said, “That truck would be great, but I can’t afford it.”  He said, “I’ll tell you what.  You drive it, and if you like it I’ll sell it to you for $9,000 and give you $3,000 for yours.  $6,000 difference.  What do you say?”  Of course, I went through the motions of the test drive, but it was a mere formality.  He had me hooked, and he knew it.  I loved that truck and drove it for the next 20 years.  (Just kidding.  I only drove it three years.  But I really did love it.  I traded it for an S-10, thinking I needed better gas mileage.  One of the dumber decisions I’ve made, but that’s another story.)

The point is, every time I buy a vehicle I think about that old man.  In fact, even though we now live a few towns over from his dealership, I’ve gone back and bought three more vehicles from him over the years.  A year or two ago I heard he passed away.  I haven’t been back to his dealership since.  Nothing at all against his family, or whomever took over the business.  (I honestly don’t even know.)  I just don’t have the motivation to go back, and fear I would be disappointed if I did.

I share that story just to say this…  I miss that way of doing business, and I’m afraid those days (and that kind of guy) are behind us.  The old man didn’t have to volunteer my trade was worth $800 more than I thought it was.  But he did.  He didn’t have to knock $2500 off the price of his truck without me even asking.  But he did.  In fact, the owner of the dealership didn't have to mess around with a college kid at all.  But he did!  And not only that, he made me a fair offer – a genuinely square deal – that was mutually beneficial to both of us.  The first time!  Crazy, right?

Like a good salesman does, the old man saw what I really wanted/needed even before I did, and he sold me on it.  I have to give him credit for that.  But even as a green 22 year-old, I understood I was dealing with an honest guy who was shooting straight with me.  Treating me like a man.  I appreciated it at the time.  I still do.

Today, one dealership in my town sets its prices with a software program.  The computer scans what a particular make/model is selling for within a certain radius and automatically generates a “fair price.”  And the price it comes up with is absolutely non-negotiable.  (I have learned this the hard way.)  The dealership promotes this as the “easy way” to buy a car.  You know you’re getting their best offer up front.  No need to haggle.

Alas, this is the way the world goes.  These days we buy everything from vehicles to toilet paper online (and I do it as much as the next guy).  The tragedy in this is that we lose interpersonal interaction – the art of the deal, the meaning of a handshake – and with it, our humanity.

Give me the gruff old guy in suspenders any day.