My Facebook feed brought a pleasant, if random, surprise the other day.
A childhood friend, Jim Ballard, shared a YouTube video (below) from a guy who apparently explores, and films, scenes in and around Gary, IN, where I grew up. In fact, Ballard and I were next door neighbors.
For whatever reason, the videographer chose to document what remains of the former Len Pollak Buick and Opel dealership (7301 East U.S. 20), which my father built and opened in 1969.
I remember how excited we were to see the construction started in 1968. I also remember my parents’ disappointment (and resolve) when a tornado wiped out the initial work.
I remember working on the construction site with my older brother, Mitch. We were clean-up guys, who dutifully picked up wood scraps and pieces of metal, and stacked enough bricks to last a lifetime.
I remember how the facility’s final $1 million price tag (nearly $7 million in today’s dollars, I’m told) seemed astronomical.
I remember playing hide and seek with my brothers and friends just about anywhere we could get away with it. I remember sitting at desks, waiting for my Dad after hours, pretending we were making car deals.
In the video, the videographer asks viewers to share any background or history they might know about the facility. I figured, I’m the guy. So here goes:
A focus on efficiency: Until I watched the video, I hadn’t thought much about how my own emphasis on operational efficiency links to my Dad’s days as a dealer. He designed the dealership to optimize efficiency. You can see it in the video. Every service bay has its own door, to ensure efficient movement of cars on and off lifts. Our service dispatcher worked in a tower, to keep an eye on work and allocate jobs the most efficiently. We had separate make-ready areas for new and used vehicles to keep the service department focused on customer pay/warranty work, and to optimize this experience for customers.
A standalone used car department: The video shows a smaller building, which my Dad built for our used car department. At the time, most dealers housed their new and used vehicle operations in the same building. My Dad thought used vehicles deserved its own space. This building is where I learned how to sell cars, and made my first deal on a 1972 Chevy Vega. The building also had an air conditioned, cork-lined room that housed a mainframe computer—another nod to my Dad’s progressive take on the business.
My tie trick. After college, I started out at the dealership as a customer relations manager, and later earned a promotion to after-sale manager. I had four protection products to sell– rust proofing, undercoating, paint shield and fabric guard. At least six times a day, I’d congratulate a customer on their purchase and start my spiel. Inevitably, I’d dip my tie in a cup of black coffee to demonstrate how fabric guard would help customers keep stains off their car seats.
A legacy that lives on. The video made me think of key people from my early days in the car business. My first hire was Jerry Cleek, who helped me build our AMC Jeep business in the early ‘80s. When we sold the dealership, it was the No. 2 Buick store in Indiana. The buyers were my Dad’s longtime partners, Jack Kerr and Bob Nielsen. Their families remain in the car business with other stores in Northwest Indiana.
The video was also a little heart-breaking to watch. The dealership buildings where I’d played as a kid and worked as a young adult, are largely abandoned. The magic of the place seems long gone.
In some ways, the current state of the dealership is like much of the Gary area today—a mere shadow of its former glory as a progressive, vibrant place to do business and provide for a family.
My hat’s off to the videographer for choosing to explore my family’s former dealership, and the opportunity to stroll down memory lane and share a little history.