Studebaker Stories:

$2695??? Why, I'd give 10,000 for one of those!

By Bob Kabchef

I was downtown yesterday afternoon. Even tho it’s the latter part of October, the days are still reachin’ into the lower 80s in the latter part of the days. In denim shorts, a Hawiian shirt and velco-strapped walking shoes, I eased inside the antique mall at 601 East Main street. This is a building that used to house the Studebaker dealership from 1937 until 1965.

As I walk in, I can almost smell the new cars on the floor and the wafting scent of the cigar on the salesmen's desk over in the corner. The sounds of traffic puttering by, the hum of the neon Commander sign in the front window, the occassional clink and clank that filters up from the service area at the rear. While I’m daydreaming about what once was, there’s a seeming whoosh of air about me. It’s faint and almost undetectable and yet I look around to see where it came from.

It’s a slow day at the Saltzman & Grogan Studebaker dealership. Walter Saltzman meanders over to one of the front windows and looks out across Main street at the Nash / Rambler dealership. While the large pane of glass affords a great view, it also reflects Walt's face and he regards his own reflection for a moment. He can see the age lines that keep getting more pronounced and he wonders to himself - just how much deeper the lean year of 1958 has made those lines. Walter’s a fair and honorable man on the threshold of age 60. He’s a man of tradition. So much so that in spite of it being 1958, he’s dressed in a suit that was trendy in the late 40s. Still, everyone in town knows Walter to be a man of principle and fair dealings.

Walt manages to look through his reflection eventually and notices the Nash salesguy, Barney somethin’-er-other, looking back from his doorway across the street. Barney shoots a half-hearted wave at Walt. Walt nods in return and then turns his attention to his watch. It's nearly 11AM and there's been no showroom traffic 'cept that guy, Burgess, stoppin’ in to see if he could still get a cigarette lighter for his '50 Champion. Well, too, that nice teacher, Ms. Watkins came by to make a payment on that Scotsman she’d bought earlier in the year. Seems incredible she never took a husband – quite attractive even for her years, she is. Walt sighs……Slow day….

As Walt stood staring towards downtown, he too, felt a whisper of a breeze on the back of his neck. He looked to see if maybe the door to the shop had been opened or if the ceiling fan had started. Neither seemed to be the case and he turned his attentions back to his thoughts.

He turns and strides back towards his desk and almost makes it to his leather chair when the doorbell jingles as Maury, the postman, ducks in. "Hey Mr. Saltzman! How's the Studebaker bizzzzness today? - Got a package here for ya and a letter for you or Mr. Grogan to sign for." (Grover Grogan was the other half of Saltzman & Grogan)

"Hi Maury. Slow here today, thanks. Here - I'll sign for that. ‘at’s probably that special order mirror we had to get outta South Bend.”

Walter reaches back, plucks the pen from his desk set and signs the receipt. Maury hands over the box and a handful of envelopes of various shapes and sizes. As Walt turns back to set the mail on his desk, the hyper postman is already on his way out the door. “See ya tomorrow Mr. Saltzman!”

“Hey Maury!", Walter calls out. “Hold on a minute - weren't you gonna bring your nephew in here to look at that Sharp Commander ragtop we took in trade? Ya know, the nicer warm months are still with us – the rest of September and October. That thing won't sit here too long. If ya got a minute, I could show ya how nice that thing runs. The Agajanians hardly put any miles on it in the six years they’ve had it. I had Brent’s put a new top on it simply because the original one was faded.”

Maury was half in and half out of the front door while he listened to Walt’s pitch. He shot a couple of looks at the creamy yellow ’52 convertible Walt was pushing. It was parked against the curb with a big “TOP DOWN FUN!!!” painted across the windshield. He kept nodding his head affirmatively as Walt spelled out the selling points…….

Walt added, “Bob 'n Eddie had 'er on the rack yesterday and said that thing's tight underneath. That baby’s greased, serviced and ready to hit the road. Gets good mileage too.”

Maury stood with his head slightly cocked as tho he was giving the car further consideration. He stroked his chin a bit and replied: “Walter, Arnie and his new bride are tryin’ to save a few bucks so they can find a house. I’m not sure an expensive car is in their budget just now.”

Walter came back: “It’s really a bargain, Maury – ragtop or not. Of course, it’s 7 years old now, but those folks only drove it on pleasure trips so the thing’s only got twenty-one thousand on it. Hey - I'm not gonna hold it if the right money walks in. And the “right money” will be well within Arnie’s budget if he’s at all interested. If he’s truly looking for a car, this is a deal. Fact is, if he tells me that YOU sent him, I’ll knock another twenty bucks off – just for you.”

With an exaggerated bit of positive head-nodding, the quirky postman assures: "Will do, Mr. Saltzman. I know he wants a car. It's just a matter of his dad spottin' him a loan to buy it. I'll mention it again. See ya tomorrow now!"

“OK Maury. You take care now, eh?”

The doorbell jingles again with Maury's departure and on closing, the heavy oak-framed glass door resonates as it always does when the latch engages. Walt saunters back by the front windows and looks west on Main, towards downtown. He watches as the postman dives in and out of doors – making his deliveries on down the sidewalk. Walt reminds himself about his afternoon appointment with Sheriff Townsend. "Sure hope we can outprice those Ford boys for some patrol units." He says to no one in particular.

Effie, the secretary, calls out from her office: “Walter! Phone’s for you. It’s Ed Duncan in South Bend.”

“OK Eff, hold on.” Walter turns and heads for his desk and runs his hand affectionately along the rear fin of the blue and white 58 President Starlight that’s parked in front of his work area. “Eff – switch that call to my desk, eh?”

“Sure thing, Walter - Mr. Duncan, Mr. Saltzman’s on the line now – thank you!”

“Hi Ed! What’s up that I get a call all the way from the home office?” [pause while Ed replies]

“Oh really! Oh that’s great news. Ed, I was just tellin’ Grover this mornin’ that I hoped there was some meat to the rumors that have been goin’ around. We need SOMETHING to revitalize sales here.” [pause as Ed speaks]

“No, really Ed – I sure hope this new model – this Lark - is something we can sell. I’ll keep my fingers crossed. You can trust me on that.” [pause as Ed speaks]

“Oh sure! No – hey – we’re ALL in a slump now. I don’t have to tell you that. Ford, Chevy – nobody’s movin’ much of anything. It’s gotta change tho – it’s just gotta, Ed.” [pause as Ed speaks]

“No, I’m not anxious to take a bunch more ‘58s Ed. My gosh – we’ve got too many as it is already. You guys gonna cut us some slack on our existing stock so I can move ‘em out? If we can’t move these things, I sure don’t know where I’ll be stashin’ these new models when they show up! We’re sittin’ on 12 sedans & wagons and only two of those are Scotsmans. Then there’s the 2 Silver Hawks, a couple of pickups and the half dozen Mecedes as well, Ed. Hey – I’m runnin’ outta place to put ‘em all.” [pause as Ed replies]

“That’s right. No – we’re here for the duration. We’ve just gotta have something folks’ll buy Ed. I sure hope you’re right with what you’re sayin’. It’s been a dismal year here for us.
Hey, like I said – see what you can do for us to help move these 58s, eh?” [pause for Ed again]

“Oh hey! I’ll be delighted to go see the unveiling at regional. Just say the word and I’ll be there. In fact, Grover and I both will be there. Heh – with bells on!” [pause for Ed]

“Alright Ed. Yup. Thanks for callin’ with the update pal. Talk to you soon.”

“ Effie, I’m gonna go get a bite to eat and then head over to Sheriff Townsend’s office. Ya know I’ve got that scheduled meeting with him at 1:30. Keep your fingers crossed that I can sway him into spending the county’s money on some Studebakers as their next patrol car purchase. Oh, and tell Grover that regional’s gonna have some of the new ‘59s for us to look at pretty soon. He and I will be takin’ a day to go to the Bay area and see them in a preview. OK?”

Effie shot back, “OK Walter – will do. Good luck with Townsend, eh?”

“Oh hey Eff, where the heck is Larry at anyways? I haven’t seen him in an hour or so.” (Larry Bryant was the only saleman working with Walter and Grover.)

“Larry’s with a customer right now – showing him a Transtar, I think. Do you need him for something?”

“No, I was just wondering. I’m gonna go now, Eff.”

With that Walt strode over to the pegboard where all the car keys hung with little paper tags identifying which car they were for. He grabbed the set for the Silver Hawk demonstrator and turned to head for the door. When his gaze shifted from the keys in his hand – towards the front door, he was confronted with a guy of rather prodigious proportions and somewhat odd attire. The stranger was staring – seemingly transfixed – at the gleaming President Starlight. Walter studied him for a few moments before clearing his throat to talk…….

“Hello there sir! I’m Walt Saltzman, and you are……?”

Without taking his eyes off of the President, he replied: “Huh? Oh, Hi. My name is Bob.”

Walt took two more steps and was close enough to extend his palm for a handshake. This guy, Bob, sort of distractedly took hold of Walt’s hand and submitted to it’s being shaken. His attentions had only partly been pulled from their focus on the beautiful Waterfall blue and Parchment white hardtop. It was Walt that put all the effort into the handshake tho.

Walt broke silence again: “She’s a beauty, ain’t she? This new body style’s my favorite this year! It’s so fresh and sweeping. Of course, it’s a Studebaker and it can’t get any better’n that, eh?”

Bob just shook his head in concurrence while Walt tried to put a finger on what was odd about the guy. Maybe it was just because there weren’t any folks in this cow town that walked around in shorts and a brightly colored Hawiian shirt. And those shoes. Never had such odd footwear graced THIS city’s sidewalks! They sure ta heck weren’t leather and they had straps instead of laces. Yeah – there was just a strange aura about this guy. Walt was anxious to get on to the diner for some lunch, but Larry was out as well as Grover and here was a live, car-perusin’ body in the showroom. It was gonna be awkward walkin’ away at the moment.

This Bob fella was still obviously entranced by the car and he proceeded to walk over and lean in – all the windows being lowered to show off the sleek, hardtop styling. Walt inquired: “You lookin’ to buy a new car, Mister?”

Bob answered: “I’ve not yearned for a new car for years, but I’ve always wanted one of these Starlights. God they’re gorgeous!”

“Well” Walt started in, “While Studebaker dropped that Starlight name a few years back, they obviously thought it was worth reviving for this new 58 hardtop. So I’d say this is your lucky year, eh?”

“Nooooo….” Bob said airily. “you don’t understand. I’ve lusted after one of these ’58 hardtops for years – decades even.”

Walt had opened his mouth to speak but before any words could escape, it dawned on him what Bob had just said….. “years – decades even” What the...???

Walt kinda drew back a bit. It was an unconscious move, but it was if his body was involuntarily recoiling so as not to catch whatever affliction it was that this Bob fella was suffering from!

“Look – ah – Bob….”, Walt was having trouble stringing words together at this point. “ Ah, I’m having trouble comprehending how it is you could’ve wanted one of these for a number of years when the truth of the matter is that this particular Starlight model only debuted a year ago.”

Bob didn’t reply. He was running his fingers over the pretty, blue brocade material on the President’s front seat.

“Bob ….. ah – ah – ah – i – i – it’s not my place to try and correct your sense of time, but there’s just no way you could’ve wanted one any time earlier than last September, is there?”

Bob pulled back from the President a bit and tweaked his head to one side a bit. “Man! I never thought I’d be able to run my hands over a brand new one of these. It’s fantastic! Just fantastic Walter. Hey! I gotta know! What’s the price on this baby?”

Walt was growing suspicious now. To him it seemed like an episode of that show on television – that Twilight Zone show! Still the practiced and courteous ways of a salesman were front and center for the moment. “Well, Bob, I think the base price on this baby is twenty-six ninety-five without any options. Of course, this one’s got a radio and climatizer and a few other additions, but if you were really interested……………. Ah, ARE you interested….. Bob?

Bob was lost to fantasizing about cruising along - the President’s 289 loafing with a melodic burble emanating from it’s dual exhausts. He was so overwhelmed with the gleamingly gorgeous monument of paint, power and brightwork that the truth of the moment hadn’t registered with his conciousness. Walt’s price quote now registering latently, Bob spontaneously grabbed into his left pocket and pulled out his cellphone. Flipping it open, he started to stab at the keys when he noticed the look on Walt’s face. He stopped punching numbers and started to explain….

“Oh, I, ah, was jus’ gonna call my wife and, ah, tell her where I am. You know – on my…….” He trailed off. Something was wrong here. Then he picked up again: “on my - ah – my ah – cellphone.

“I see.” Walt replied unconvincingly. His face was without emotion except that he cocked his head a bit to infer that he was suspect of what he was being confronted with. “Call your wife???” He said in a dubious tone. “Wouldn’t it be easier if you used the telephone on my desk?”

“Ah…..yeah…. I ah, I guess so” Bob said haltingly. “Heh – I guess maybe there’s not too many cellphone towers out this way anyway, huh?”

“Cellphone towers?” Walt said mockingly as he squinted his eyes and scrunched his face as tho a bad odor had just wafted in. “No, I don’t think there ARE many of those, ah, as you say - out this way.”

Walt held up a forefinger and said: “Hold on a minute, Bob, will ya?” Then he cupped his hand to the right side of his mouth and called over the roof of the Mercedes that shared the showroom with the Starlight and the red and white Transtar. “Effie, change of plans, hon. Can you call Townsend and ask him if he could come HERE instead – like, NOW? Effie? Will you do that for me, Eff? Effie?”

There was no reply. “Effie”, Walt called out a bit louder. There was still no reply. Walt turned back to Bob and asked: “Can you wait right here for a minute? I know you’ll have other questions about this car. I’m gonna see where my secretary got off to and then I’ll have her ring up your wife for you, OK?”

“Ah – sure.” Bob said hesitantly. “I’ll continue looking at the Starlight”

Walt gave a little grin of agreement and after a few quick steps, disappeared into the little office at the rear of the showroom.

Bob looked down at the cellphone in his hand and thought about how silly it had been to whip it out in a time and place like this. Then he turned his head back towards the President. His eyes widened involuntarily and he blinked them a couple of times in disbelief. The gleaming, be-finned, blue and white beauty was gone! In it’s place was a display of antique western items. An old saddle, some spurs, a halter and some horseshoeing tools.

Snapping his head to look in the other direction, the Tan-colored Mercedes sedan that had been RIGHT THERE – it was nowhere to be seen either! Glancing quickly around, there was no desk with pen set, ash tray and black dial phone - no corner office and no Walter or Effie or anything that he’d been surrounded by just a blink before! In their place was a bunch of pieces of antique furniture and collectible knick-knacks. Not one hint of a Studebaker was evident.

The only thing that harkened back to that moment was the brick walls, the old, tiled floor and the very showroom windows that had so proudly worn big Studebaker signs, both printed and neon.


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