Correction to This Article
The Car Culture column incorrectly said that Washington area dealer Jack Fitzgerald was a onetime practitioner of the high-pressure Hull-Dobbs selling system. Fitzgerald has been a longtime critic of the practice, used to extract maximum profit from consumers in car sales.

Huckster Image Hurts Dealers Today, Automakers Tomorrow

By Warren Brown
Sunday, May 17, 2009

Horace Hull and partner James "Jimmy" Dobbs did much to ruin the image of automobile dealers past and present. At their Hull-Dobbs Ford Agency on Union Avenue in Memphis, they developed a high-pressure selling technique called "The System," also known as "The Drill."

Most of today's successful dealers have long abandoned that squeeze-the-consumer sales approach. But many feel they are now being haunted by the ghosts of that ugly past, allowing them to be portrayed as disposable bad actors in a domestic automobile industry fighting to stay alive in a national economy desperately struggling to do the same.

It started in the 1940s. The nation was fighting in World War II. An America that had mastered assembly-line production in the manufacture of Chevrolet, Ford and Chrysler automobiles had turned those skills and the car plants in which they were used into the assembly of tanks and war planes.

New-car customers were as hard to find as new cars during those times. To keep their business going, Hull and Dobbs figured they had to keep a loyal, motivated sales staff. To do that, they did a seemingly good thing. They turned to profit sharing, allowing their salespeople to retain a share of the profits from every car and truck sold.

But greed joined forces with opportunity as the war ended. There was a pent-up demand for new cars and trucks in a victorious America. The Hull-Dobbs salesmen -- they were all men on the showroom floor back then -- were ready. They were determined to squeeze maximum profit, awarded to them via individual commissions, from every vehicle sold.

"The System" was simple in execution. It required "unhorsing" the consumer, separating him from the keys to his old car, often through the ruse of the dealership needing those keys to examine the old car for possible trade-in value.

"Detention" followed. It involved holding the consumer in the dealership through a variety of scams, such as the trade-in evaluation wait-time gimmick, the "checking with my manager" routine, etc.

Next was "putting on the pressure," an especially useful sales tool in the immediate postwar era, when new cars were in short supply. "If you don't buy it, the next guy will."

Finally, the "release": The customer, unhorsed and pummeled, his mind thoroughly messed with, was let go to go forth in his sparkling new ride at maximum profit to the dealership and its sales staff.

"The System" flourished in the 1950s and 1960s, especially among retailers of domestic automobiles, whose manufacturers controlled 85 percent -- some auto industry analysts claim 90 percent -- of the U.S. auto market.

And those manufacturers -- General Motors, Ford and Chrysler -- battled for market share by setting up as many dealerships as possible, often establishing two or more in the same community.

There were 36,000 domestic and import dealers in the United States in 1960, with the lion's share of those belonging to retailers of domestic vehicles. But by 1987 -- ravaged by intermittent recessions, drastically declining market shares of the domestic automobile companies, and the evolution of mom-and-pop dealerships into chain stores and publicly traded enterprises, the number of franchised new-car dealers had fallen to 25,150, according to figures compiled by the McLean-based National Automobile Dealers Association.

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