True Stories From A Former Car Dealer #11: 9.11.01

9.11.01 True Stories from a Former Car Dealer

Depending on your age, there are some events in life you remember exactly what you were doing when they occurred.  For me, it was when John Kennedy was shot, the first space shuttle that exploded, and September 11, 2001.

I was the Ford National Dealer Council Chairman that year, and on that fateful Tuesday morning, I was scheduled to meet with Ford dealers in the west Texas area.  Most are fairly small dealers, but there were a lot of them, so my job was to see what their issues were, gather that data, and take it back to Ford executives to see what could be done.  I held a number of such meetings with large and small dealers around the country.

On September 10, 2001, I put in a full day at my dealership, ran home to pack a bag, and headed to Love Field to catch the last Southwest flight to Midland, TX where the meeting was to be held.  I got to Midland around 9:30 PM, grabbed a cab and headed to the hotel to catch some sleep.  The following day’s meeting was being held where I was staying and was scheduled for 9:30 AM to give the dealers who were driving in time to get there.

September 11, 2001

I asked for a wakeup call for 8 AM, got up, and jumped in the shower.  Once out, I flipped on the news, as is still my habit every day, and I distinctly remember it was Good Morning America on ABC.  Charlie Gibson and Dianne Sawyer were on the desk and they were discussing a fire in one of the World Trade Center towers.

I was shocked by this, considering I had dinner at the top of one of the towers just a few months earlier. The anchors were speculating at this point that a small plane had hit the tower and they had a camera fixed on the building.  As I was watching, the second plane slammed into the other tower.  I remember thinking that the second plane was not small by any stretch.  Charlie and Dianne saw it too, and I suppose Charlie was searching for understanding but asked “what are the odds two planes would hit the two towers on the same day?” or words to that effect.  It was then I realized we were under attack as a nation.

I watched coverage until 9:15 Central and headed downstairs to my meeting.  I asked for a TV to be brought into the room and turned on.  As the dealers entered the room, everybody was aware of what was going on, but none of us knew the full extent.  I called the meeting to order at 9:35 AM.  I explained what we hoped to accomplish before noon.  As I looked around the room of 30-35 women and men, I could see the worry on their faces.  It was almost like everyone was in a daze.

I was in no better shape and five minutes into the meeting, I stood up and will never forget my words.  I said “you know what, there are more important things going on than this.  Go be with your families, this can wait”.  With that, the meeting was over. I have to admit, getting home was all I wanted to do as well.

As I walked into the lobby of the hotel, I saw on the TV that all flights were being grounded.  I was 350 miles from home, no way to get there, and the world was falling apart.

Besides the Ford dealers at the meeting, there were three Ford managers there.  The Regional Sales Manager, the Regional Customer Service Manager, and I had invited the gentleman who ran the parts depot in Carrollton, TX.  The dealers were having logistics issues getting parts on time so I had him there to answer questions.

The Regional Sales Manager was a dear friend, and I asked him how he was getting back to Dallas.  He said the parts depot manager had rented a Mercury Grand Marquis the day before from Hertz and that the four of us could ride back to Dallas together.  I was incredibly relieved.  The man who rented the car was on the phone with Hertz, and they were giving him a hard time about taking the rent car to Dallas.  I told him to tell them my name, my dealership’s name, and that the car WAS INDEED going to Dallas, I’d just buy it from them at whatever price they wanted.  We threw clothes into our bags, then into the trunk of the car and headed out with the parts guy driving.

It was a bit of a creepy ride, to be honest.  We were listening to the news and the absence of airplanes was a bit unnerving.  The highway was relatively bare of cars.  There were a lot of 18-wheelers, but car traffic was very light.  We’d been on the road about a half hour and I saw a sign that said El Paso 275 miles.  I must have been the only one who noticed it and said: “guys, we’re going the wrong direction”.  Sure enough, the compass showed we were headed west and needed to be going east.  We took the first turn and headed toward Dallas, adding an hour to our trip.

As I recall, we got back to the DFW area around 3 PM, and my carpool pals dropped me at Love Field where my car was and I first headed to my dealership to see what was going on.  There was not a customer in the place. I told my sales managers to close at 6 PM, instead of the usual 9 PM and went home, dog tired and uncertain what the future would hold.

Impact on Auto Industry

In the coming week or so, my dealership that typically sold 20 to 30 cars per day during the week, was lucky to sell 2-3.   President Bush met with the heads of Ford, GM, and Chrysler and asked what they could do to get the economy moving again, and on September 21, 2001, General Motors hit the airwaves with a program called Keep America Rolling.  The message was simple:  0% APR financing for five years on every GM vehicle.  It had never been done across the board before.  Ford scrambled to match the offer the following day, but it took Chrysler longer to match and get their ads done.

Suddenly, we went from selling virtually no cars to the busiest time I can ever remember.  Through the end of October 2001, we sold more cars than I ever remember.  We could not keep up with demand and had not ordered enough cars, but we got through by the time the end of November came around, and 0% ended.

As they say, the rest is history.  The historic 0% offer by GM began a long period of incentive spending that still lasts today.  Consumers were trained to wait to buy cars, the big rebates and 0% would soon return.  As we now know, it was the big rebates and other incentives that brought down General Motors and Chrysler, much like airplanes brought down the World Trade Center towers.

Photo Credit:  Yuriy Vlasenko/Shutterstock


  1. Gary 7 months ago

    Jerry, that story is as real in my mind as it was then. Great follow up to the ice cream lady! I will never forget my own story that fateful day. I love these stories. I grew up in the car business. Someday, you need to hear my dad’s dealership story about Sonny and Butch in the service drive. Miller Freeman Ford in Clear Lake City, Tx.

  2. Robert Burgrr 6 months ago

    I was working at a Toyota dealer when I heard about the happenings that morning.
    The strangest thing I remember was not an airplane in the sky for several days after, except for a couple fir F-16s occasionally.

  3. Larry Brooks 6 months ago

    A call from my daughter told me to turn on the tv at @ 8 am. As I watched what was happening I though back to the Tuesday before when I flew out of Logan at 6am in Boston back here to Sacramento.

  4. Martin Winter 6 months ago

    I was on my way to work on a set at Universal Studios in Hollywood that morning. I heard the news coming in and when I told the rest of my crew what was happening they dismissed it. Wasn’t too long before they realized what ever was happening was real. LAPD and the security personnel basically locked down the lot for the greater part of the day.
    Seemed so surreal at the time.

  5. Kelly M. Daniels 6 months ago

    I worked as a police officer at the airport in Louisville KY. I worked the night shift and got off work at 7 a.m. and was home in bed by 9 a.m. About 45 mins later my wife woke me to come see the TV. After I watched a while I went to bed knowing we would be on 12 hour shifts that night and extending for weeks without a day off.
    The most unusual aspect was the airport that night being deathly quiet. I drove the ramp that night and marveled at the aircraft from airlines I never heard of parked all over. Flights were forced down at the nearest airport regardless if they were assigned there. Also as you stated in your article there was a tremendous rush for rental cars with the lot being emptied in a matter of hours.

  6. KWW 6 months ago

    Jerry, I love reading these! You stated in closing that the big incentives and rebates is what brought down GM and Chrysler; how did Ford survive when they were offering the same incentives to match the competitors?

  7. Steve 6 months ago

    Another great story Jerry!

  8. Danelle 6 months ago

    My son is a pilot. His wife knew all the numbers to call to try to reach him without success. Phone service was backlogged as everyone else was trying to reach family and friends. Being his Mom did not allow me to obtain any information if he was flying, jump seating or grounded. It took all day to finally know he was safe. I use to love to fly but the terrorism we experienced that day continues and will never be the same.

  9. Eli Murphy 6 months ago

    I was in Tetrerbourgh NJ just across the river from the towers. I had just arrived day before to start a project there . Other than the things reported on tv I remember how the entire area was just shut down no cars on the streets no people out walking. Odd thing I was the only person in the group who had a working phone as I was on Cingular and their transponders were not on the towers like the other providers and about 11am I got a call from Mr Perot office wanting to know if the team was ok. That man cared for his people. A day I will never forget for many reasons.

  10. Leith Tecklenburg 6 months ago

    We were at lake Powell on vacation. A few of the RV’s had gen sets and TV’s on, they were the gathering place for everyone camping at Lone Rock Beach all day. In the afternoon boats finally began to show up on the lake. Every one was flying an American Flag! Unforgettable day.

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