One of the big reasons many people got into the car business when I did, was demonstrators, or in short, demos. There was a time when all dealerships gave their salespeople company cars. The idea was for the salespeople to show off those cars wherever they went. It was a huge perk.
Slowly over time, dealerships stopped allowing salespeople company cars. Most decided to move to a car allowance because that was cheaper than insurance to cover the cars and the liability. As time went on, demos were phased out altogether for salespeople, and in some cases, even managers.
Much like you remember your first car when you were 16-years old, you always remember your first demo. When I was 19 and went to work full-time, I got a hand-me-down demo, a Ford Granada that was blue with a white vinyl roof. I didn’t love it, but it was free and all I had to do was put gas in it.
In 1980, I went to see Urban Cowboy. Life changed for me with that movie. I put my shoes on the shelf and bought my first pair of boots, alligator as I recall, and switched my demo from a car to an F-150. Then there were only regular cabs and extended cabs, no Crew Cabs at all. I remember my first truck well, it was champagne in color and it had chrome wheels with wood spokes.
In the car biz, as you rose through the ranks, you could drive a nicer vehicle. When you got to the General Sales Manager rank or above, you could have your pick of the lot. That was a huge motivator to get promoted, it truly was. When you got to be the General Manager of a dealership, and this is still true today, you typically got two demonstrators – one for you, one for your spouse – if you were married.
I drove a plethora of different vehicles over the years. When I got in the Buick business I drove Rivieras, Grand Nationals, Park Avenues with simulated convertible tops, and if it was a Buick sedan you could bet it had wire wheels.
When I owned a Dodge Chrysler dealership, I drove Magnums with a Hemi under the hood, Chrysler 300 hemis, and hopped-up Chargers. When I owned a Lincoln Mercury Mazda store, I typically drove Town Cars because I drove to Oklahoma City every Wednesday and they were great road cars.
The majority of my demos were Fords through the years. I went through a phase of driving conversion vans, Broncos, Thunderbirds, and a slew of different Ford trucks. Typically, I would add larger tires and wheels, add dual exhaust, and raise the front end so the truck was level.
Even after years in the business, you never really lost that excitement of picking up a new demo. It wasn’t just the fun of picking a new vehicle, it was a reflection of you. Everywhere you went, people saw what you were driving and there was an expectation of what you drove being special.
Then at times, I’d get bored with my own products. For a number of years when I had my big Ford dealership, I would buy a slightly used Jaguar to drive for a while, then sell it and buy another one. I justified it at the time because Ford owned Jaguar. Makes sense, right? I had sedans and convertible Jags, I always liked variety. Early in my career at the first dealership I ever worked at, I convinced the owner to let me buy a Chrysler Imperial to drive, even though I worked at a Ford dealership.
One day in the mid-1990s, my Ford Motor Credit rep pulled up in a new Lincoln Mark VIII, it was dark green and the prettiest car I had ever seen. I knew I had to have it. Usually these cars went to auction, but somehow I talked the Branch Manager into letting me buy it, which I’m sure caused all sorts of headaches for them, but still today, it was one of my all-time favorites.
Demos were often used by celebrities, too. I had at least 8-10 radio personalities in cars at all time. When they did commercials, they would talk about the car they were driving. A lot of dealers gave demos to sports celebrities in exchange for appearances, but I never did this, I felt the risk was too great.
As I told you in an earlier True Story (#7-Celebs) I had Blake Shelton in a truck in exchange for commercials at my Oklahoma dealership. I also had LeAnn Rimes in a demo before she was really famous, she did radio commercials for me. Once she recorded her very first hit, she wanted something nicer than a Ford.
Of course, most of you know this story, but when I approached Kevin McCarthy about starting the radio show, I told him I wasn’t ready to pay him since this was an experiment, but I would let him drive a vehicle for free. He agreed, and came out to the dealership and picked out an Expedition. I had no idea that he wasn’t the world’s best driver, nor did I know Kevin McCarthy was an alias.
One day I get a call from the Garland Police Department telling me one of my demos was involved in a serious accident. I asked who was driving it, and they gave me a name I did not recognize. I took the name to my General Manager and asked: “Who in the hell is XXXXXX XXXXX?” My GM had no idea, but the police had given me the VIN and I traced it to Kevin. Yes, it was totaled out, but everyone lived, which was the main thing.
Back many years ago, when salespeople got demonstrators, there were several reasons for it, including knowing their product better, and often they loaned their demo cars to their best customers when they had their cars in for service. A demo was a major perk for salespeople, and the more cars you sold, the nicer demo you got to drive.
When I was still in high school and working at a Ford dealership in my neighborhood, one Saturday a dear friend and mentor asked me to drive him on a golf cart to the far back lot. He wanted me to help him pick out a new demo. Joe was a guy who loved his demo, and he was a top salesperson, so he got to drive a nice car. Typically he wanted an LTD Brougham.
We go to the back lot and drive the long line of cars slowly. I stopped at a Silver LTD 2-door with light gray interior and a gray half vinyl roof. I’ll never forget the car. I said: “that’s it! That’s the prettiest LTD on the lot.” Joe got off the cart and looked inside and said: “I don’t like the interior color, it looks like a casket.” I scoffed at that and told him it would be much cooler than a darker interior. Joe relented and we took the car to get prepped.
Later in the day, Joe told me he was going to Wichita Falls, TX to see his Mom and asked if I wanted to join him. His plan was to see her and watch the Dallas Cowboys play on Sunday. At the time, unless a game was sold out, you could not see it locally, but if you drove out of town you could. Wichita Falls was about 150 miles away and I wanted to see the game, so I said sure, but I needed to check with my parents. I told Joe I’d call him later that afternoon.
When I got home around 6 PM, I asked my folks if I could go with Joe to watch the game. My Mom said my Grandmother was not doing well, and we needed to go see her the following day, which was Sunday. I was disappointed because Joe and I had such a good time together but knew I had to go see my Grandmother.
Around 2 AM on Sunday morning on September 28, 1975, Joe’s wife Dorothy called and told me Joe had been killed in a head-on collision on the way to Wichita Falls, and yes, he was driving the new LTD I helped him pick out. Joe Edward Meharg passed away at the age of 39, and I lost an incredible friend whom I’ll never forget.
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Tags: True Stories From a Former Car Dealer