A Fond Farewell to SoCal TV Car Hustlers

kay, 2009, fifth month and probably the third time I’ve had part of my column, if not all of it, dealing with the impending death of the American Auto Industry. I said I wouldn’t beat my subject to death but here I go again. For anybody into cars, though, the subject is a big deal.

I realize I could be off-count but to me the chances of GM, Chrysler, and Ford surviving the current depression is as likely as TV’s awful “Paid Programming” pimple to be popped and removed from the air. The scenario is grim, but in my scattered windblown thoughts I get a little jacked up when I think of the past and the wacky televised local car dealer commercials.

While I thought most of your car dealers had all the ethics of a TV preacher, I miss the golden years of televised car hustling.  There is something remotely bizarre in me that enjoys watching a non-violent felony materializing right before my eyes.

Not only that, but the fortunes of the TV car huckster, at least aesthetically, are somewhat similar to current day drag racing and its relationship to its past. Neither one is what they were.

Historically, car dealerships and drag racing in the 1950s and especially the first half of the 1960s were as common as Camrys on the highways. Think about the great ones. The Ramchargers team and Hodges Dodges in Michigan. The great “Mr. Norm” Kraus and Grand Spaulding Dodge in Chicago. Gay Pontiac in Texas. Tom “the Mongoose” McEwen and the Southern California Plymouth Dealers Funny Car and the Yeakel Bros. Plymouth and Brand Motors Top Fuel Dragster. Airline Auto Sales and their stable of Top Fuelers in Pomona. Brewer Motors in Washington.  Mike Burkhart, Mart Higgenbotham and Charlie Therwanger aboard Doran Chevrolet Funny Cars.  Don Nicholson in the Atlanta District Lincoln-Mercury Comets, the Tasca Ford Mustangs out of Rhode Island, and, of course, former State Capitol Dragway owner Norman “Moose” Pearah’s Moose Motors that sponsored the Frank Cook Racing armada out of Dallas. Pearah first uttered the famous phrase, “Don’t make a ‘Moose’-take” admonishing his potential customers not to go to another dealer and cause him to miss his opportunity at a beheading. 

I, as a fan, was happy as hell that these funsters chose to play ball with drag racing. Sure, it was cornball, but they livened up the game on and off the track.
I personally think that my old boss Wally Parks enjoyed some of his happiest years when the factories and dealerships involved themselves with the sport. How Wally used to lecture the National DRAGSTER staff on his crossed-up theory that the cars (as in factory product ) were the stars. Yeah, maybe for a while, say 1960 through 1964 and the late 1960s when the various factories held their performance clinics across the country at local dealerships. But it was plain to anyone with a functioning orbital cortex that the stars were named Garlits, Prudhomme, Jenkins, Sox and Karamesines, and that the cars rarely eclipsed this consciousness. Drag fans came to see the flesh and blood stars, and over time, Wally’s iron and steel theory was stuffed in a car crusher and shipped to China.

However, there was a part in all of this that made my heart sing.  If you’re not in your mid-40s and up, you probably missed some of the great television of all time. Most of these guys didn’t use drag racing in their commercials, but their ballsy,  bombastic, bullshit was a show in itself. Unintentional gaffs, mishaps, outrageous behavior, deaths … sort of like a 1960 fuels show with all the stops out.

The other night I was watching CNN babble something about a stowaway bear going berserk on the space shuttle (well, maybe not) when a car ad barged into the party. I recognized the style and the star immediately. It was the 1950s approach just slightly toned down. Clown in the lot making claims and trying to sell cars. I watched it like I would one of my old favorite shows. I thought this stuff was all gone but here it is. Two thousand nine becomes 1960.