Commentary

Snow: Treating cars, car salesmen with respect

February 2, 2013 

During the seemingly endless tsunami of political rhetoric pouring from TV’s talking heads in recent weeks, it was mentioned repeatedly that Congress ranks just one notch higher than last-place car salesmen in public esteem.

November’s Gallup poll ranking of 22 professions’ perceived honesty and ethics confirmed the claim.

Congress has earned the public’s disrespect. But I don’t understand how car salesmen came by such a bad reputation.

“I’ve never felt ripped off while trading cars,” I said to my friend Keever, who is remarkably car wise.

“That’s because you’re so naive about cars,” he said candidly, never one to call a spade a shoveling instrument. “When a car salesman sees you coming, he starts rubbing his hands in glee and contemplating his fat commission.

“Anyway,” he lectured, “You’ve never treated your cars with proper respect.”

Maybe not. At least not like some men who treat a car as if it were their mistress. And, unlike some car owners, at the mall, I don’t park way down yonder in the papaw patch for fear if I don’t, someone will park beside me and dent my door while opening theirs.

“Also, I know some car owners who don’t just wash their cars; they bathe them,” I said pointedly.

“You should,” he responded. “Remember the time you complained that someone had switched the two back whitewalls on your Regal and replaced them with black tires? Remember how I spat on a Kleenex and rubbed off some of the accumulated grease and gunk to reveal the white stripe?”

The man has a memory like an elephant. Of course I remember.

I’m still puzzled by the stereotype of the untrustworthy car salesman.

As a kid growing up on the farm, I once ardently aspired to be a car salesman. I would have aspired to be the Devil’s helper in hell just to get away from farm work.

Dressed in their Sunday best, with shoes polished to a high gloss, the salesmen would trudge across the plowed field or make their way through shoulder-high tobacco to try to talk my older brothers into trading for a new Ford. With the car priced at an astronomical $700 and tobacco selling for next to nothing, a sale was rarely consummated.

Until recently, trading or buying a car was a cat-and-mouse game in which the salesmen held all the advantages except the buyer’s “walk away” option. The salesman knew the dealer cost and how low he could go under the sticker price.

These days, a prospective buyer can trade cars without leaving home. All he has to do is feed the profile of the car he wants into a website and then sit back and wait for the best offers from area dealerships.

For years I traded cars with Charlie Capps at the local Al Smith Buick dealership. Charlie was a genial, gentle soul whom I trusted as implicitly as I did my preacher. (Incidentally, preachers ranked eighth and journalists 12th among the 22 professions in Gallup’s poll on trust and ethics.)

But when I’d try to get Charlie to lower the price, he’d sigh and say, “But Mr. Snow, I’ve got to make a living.” Then, after looking under his desk blotter, he’d go confer with the sales manager. On his return, he’d cut the price a wee bit and we’d repeat the routine until I caved.

I was often tempted to look under the blotter. I later heard of a man who did that only to find photos of the fellow’s children and his wife’s grocery list.

I don’t know what car merchants can do to improve their image, which probably grew out of a time when, as my friend notes, naive prospective purchasers were prime for plucking and some salesmen were not above fleecing them.

Nevertheless, ranking car salesmen’s ethics below those of Congress is an insult the car industry doesn’t deserve.

Meanwhile, Congress has its work cut out for it. Since the November poll ranking the lawmakers next to last in public regard, voters responding to a new Public Policy poll said they had a higher opinion of root canals, head lice and cockroaches.

Snow: 919-836-5636 or asnow@newsobserver.com

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