By JIM CAHILLANE
Thursday, May 3, 2012
WILLIAMSBURG – A recent New Yorker article made a good point about American culture – that memory reasserts itself every so many years. “The prime site of nostalgia is always whatever happened, or is thought to have happened, in the decade between forty and fifty years past.”
For example, the article pointed out today’s interest in the 1960s as portrayed by the TV show “Mad Men.” Looking to the ’40s, it noticed movies about the turn of the century, like “Meet Me in Saint Louis,” a film made in 1944 about a fair held in 1904. This year’s presidential election could prove the point.
In my later years, I have, if not a 40-yard stare, memories of 40- and 50-year-old events, and of people who influenced my youth.
The playwright Alan Bennett recognized this phenomenon in his 1968 play, “Forty Years On” starring John Gielgud as a confused headmaster. The law of averages, or six degrees of separation, ensures that most of us will encounter a celebrity during our lives. One of mine was Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney’s father, George.
Sit down, children, as I take you back 50 or more years to a time when General Motors, Ford and Chrysler ruled the American road, except for little American Motors, Volkswagen and a few other imports with limited appeal. As it happened, my father had a franchise with the Hudson Motor Car Co., which, because it merged with Nash Motors in 1954, demanded of our family business a challenge disguised as opportunity.
I’m talking 1955; our daily task was to make a living selling the less popular cars built by Nash and Hudson – newly renamed American Motors. The Nash Co. built quirky economy cars in a one-time Wisconsin mattress factory hundreds of miles from Detroit.
In 1956, I visited the factory town of Kenosha, Wis. My memory is of dirty streets with working-class bars. Inside the plant, cars were built the old-fashioned way – no robots, but lots of workers in grey overalls.
An engine block would appear at one end of a roller-equipped assembly line. Each process was done by hand before the worker rolled it along to the next guy. When the engine was completed it was bolted to the drive train. Then the whole assembly was lifted into place from underneath. That surprised me because, in my experience, engines went in and out from the top. Obviously, I wasn’t going to make my mark in manufacturing.
American Motors’ new CEO was a Hollywood-handsome master pitchman. George Romney inherited a dealer body of disgruntled Nash and Hudson guys who competed with each other. We had to compete with a King Street Nash dealership owned by the late Cliff Buchholz. If Cliff ever made a mistake, it was when he took on Toyota then dropped it. Similarly, we sold Honda bikes and scooters but never moved into selling their tiny automobiles.
Which brings me back to George Romney. George could, in a wildly out-of-date phrase, sell iceboxes to Eskimos. In this case, we dealers were the people of the north and we bought his argument that Ford, GM and Chrysler were selling “gas-guzzling dinosaurs” and that Americans were foolish to waste their money on cars that got 10 miles per gallon.
George relabeled his models Ramblers and promised to deliver value for a buck. Regular gas was selling for 31 cents a gallon, but Romney’s conviction in speeches and advertising was that America was wasting its valuable resources. He came up with innovative programs for dealers. If we junked a worn out trade-in, he paid us to do it. Customers who bought a new Rambler received a rebate in the form of a U.S. Savings Bond. Long before the Internet, every salesman in every dealership had a comparison booklet that took on the competition feature by feature.
This year, President Obama will be up against Mitt Romney, the son of George, who sold millions of four- and six-cylinder economy cars. George’s believers became the early adopters of recycling and living a simpler life.
Not long afterward, George Romney was elected Michigan’s governor and in 1967 started a run for the White House. He lost GOP party favor and his presidential bid after saying the Pentagon and State Department diplomats had given him a “brainwashing” during a Vietnam briefing.
History’s 2012 joke could be on the Democrats, if they refuse to compete for every last vote against Willard “Mitt” Romney.
Fifty years ago, Mitt’s dad was one of America’s greatest salesmen.
Jim Cahillane is a freelance writer who lives in Williamsburg.