It was 1969, I’d just had my consciousness raised at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, but as a feckless high school student with a vinyl habit, I also needed a job.
Wouldn’t you know it, I got hired by a car dealership. I was expertly prepared for this august position by previously working as a newspaper circulation guy, an ice cream shop record salesman and a line worker in a factory that made production inventory boards. My automotive knowledge was confined to shade-tree mechanic work on a series of $50 cars. I could change a tire, do a tuneup, perform bad bodywork with Bondo.
The job was at Flag Motors in Westport, Connecticut, a Dodge dealer. Being a Dodge dealer then was a license to print money. I looked it up, and Chrysler had an approximately 20 percent U.S. market share in 1969, and $99 million in profits on $7 billion of sales. Today it has about 10 percent market share.
We sold some appealing cars, such as the Dodge Dart compact — 190,000 of those were sold in 1970, and Chrysler had a heady 39 percent of the domestic compact market. Remember the Slant Six engine? The Plymouth Duster? And how about the infamous Dart Swinger (below)?
I didn’t sell the cars, I just wiped off the cosmoline, put the hubcaps on, took the plastic off the seats. And when I wasn’t busy doing that, I had to sweep the road outside the dealership. The boss was a hugely impressive figure who drove my dream car, a 1969 Dodge Charger R/T in bright orange. I think he let me park it once.
If imported cars existed then, I wasn’t aware of it. But then a funny thing happened. That Charger-driving boss decided to expand — with the Toyota franchise. My job grew — now I had to go down to the docks and bring the little cars back to the dealership. That's a '68 Corolla Sprinter--the sporty one--below.
And y’know, the little Corollas (there was also an upscale Corona line) weren’t bad. I was impressed by a) the low price; b) the overall quality; and c) the handling — like nothing I’d seen in domestic models. As I said, we now sold Toyotas, but the consensus around the water cooler was that they were kind of a joke, a sideline, cars for college professors and eggheads. But the office wags had to scratch their heads when the toy cars began to sell.
The Corolla had a one-liter inline four-cylinder engine with 51 horsepower, and a top speed of 87 mph. It got to 60 mph, I dunno, sometime. But it was economical, and it didn’t break. Check out this period Flag Motors ad — the Corona got 30 mpg! And it cost $1,930 fully equipped.
Today, General Motors and Toyota duke it out for number one in the American market. Chrysler, well, like GM it went through bankruptcy, and is clawing back. You can buy a Dodge Dart again, and that's one below.
As for me, I left Flag Motors, went off to college, and got given an early BMW coupe by my aunt. My first foreign car! It was the Corolla plus being enormously fun to drive. I was sold on foreign cars, and so were many other Americans. I’ve owned Nissans, BMWs, Volvos, Alfas, Mercedes-Benzes, and more.
American carmakers have learned their lesson — they’re not nearly as complacent as they used to be. Today, a GM, Chrysler or Ford car can compete on the world stage. From the vantage point of 1969, it looked like nothing could shake the Big Three’s stranglehold on the American market. But we also had factories back then and “made in the U.S.A.” was still riding high.
Wallow in nostalgia with this Dodge Boys ad for the Charger in 1969 — "White Hat Special," anyone?
Related on MNN: The Dodge Dart Registry — it's not just for weddings anymore