You can't ask the man who owns one anymore, wa, wa, wa, wa, wa

WAY BACK WHEN

Backstory

December 21, 2008|By FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN | FREDERICK N. RASMUSSEN,fred.rasmussen @baltsun.com

Ask the man who owns one," which became one of the automotive industry's most enduring slogans, was unveiled by the Packard Motor Car Co. in 1901.

The story goes that a potential buyer called one day and asked for a sales brochure. When a secretary related the request, James Packard, who founded the company with his brother William in 1899, replied that such literature didn't exist and is reputed to have said: "Tell him to ask the man who owns one."

Now, as the Big Three automakers patiently wait with upturned palms for White House intervention and a slice of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout fund to save their troubled industry, it's a moment to recall the halcyon days when automakers wooed buyers with snappy advertising slogans and jingles cooked up by Tin Pan Alley and Madison Avenue.

Catchy phrases certainly didn't guarantee success.

Well-engineered Packard 8 touring, convertible coupes and super 8 cabriolet automobiles, with their distinctive flying goddess hood ornaments, dominated the luxury car market until being edged out by Cadillac in the 1930s. After World War II, when domestic automotive production suspended during the war resumed, Packard came back with the bulky 1946 Clipper 6 and 8.

But the glory of former days had vanished, and by 1954, Packard was forced to merge with Studebaker. Packard sales spiraled downward, falling to a disappointing 13,000 in 1956.

"The last two seasons' cars were nothing more than disguised Studebakers," wrote G.N. Georgano in his book, Encyclopedia of American Automobiles.

The last Packards rolled out of the company's 3.5 million-square-foot plant on East Grand Boulevard in Detroit in 1956, and two years later, the company exited the automotive business for good.

Fifty-two years later, the abandoned sprawling Packard plant still stands eerily empty and idle.

Bill McGraw, a columnist for the Detroit Free Press , writing last week in The New York Times, noted that the now-crumbling plant once symbolized the days when Detroit was the "Silicon Valley of the early 20th century." He added: "Its headquarters and chief production complex still stand here, though, and their slowly decaying remains serve as a symbol for the fall of American manufacturing in general and the degradation of the auto industry in particular."

One of the early toe-tapping tunes from 1905 that celebrated the joys and possible seductive possibilities of "automobiling," as it was then called, was the music of Gus Edwards and the lyrics by Vincent Bryan in the duo's "In My Merry Oldsmobile."

Young Johnny Steele has an Oldsmobile. He loves his dear little girl.

She is the queen of his gas machine. She has his heart in a whirl.

And then the chorus:

Come away with me, Lucille ,in my merry Oldsmobile

Down the road of life we'll fly automo-bubbling, you and I.

To the church we'll swiftly steal, then our wedding bells will peal,

You can go as far as you like with me, In my merry Oldsmobile.

Probably the song "Get Out and Get Under," written in 1913, more accurately describes what driving was like in the pioneering days of motoring.

Ford Motor Co. got its chance in 1928 when Walter O'Keefe's "Henry's Made a Lady out of Lizzie," depicting a smiling bow-tied and fedora-wearing gent at the wheel of a convertible, while his flapper girlfriend with butterfly lips and a flower stuck in her marcelled hair admiringly looks on, obviously impressed by her beau's good taste in automotive transportation.

The quiet sexuality and privacy that an auto conveyed was also suggested by "In My Flivver Just for Two" in 1925.

Probably one of the most memorable ad campaigns, certainly for baby boomers, also became the theme song for a popular NBC variety show sponsored by Chevrolet.

Beginning in 1956 and continuing until 1963, Dinah Shore glided across the stage floor weekly in a swirling cocktail dress as she belted out what became an iconic urging for those gas-guzzling days of the open road: See the U.S.A. in a Chevrolet. / America is asking you to call. / Drive your Chevrolet through the U.S.A. / America's the greatest land of all.

"You're Ahead in a Ford all the Way" was used as the closing theme on the Tennessee Ernie Ford Show on ABC from 1956 until the early 1960s.

"Ford Tough," "Nobody Beats a Ford," and the "Have you driven a Ford lately" ad campaigns were also memorable ad campaigns.

From 1991 to 2004, Bob Seger, the gravelly voiced Detroit rocker, growled out "Like A Rock" for Chevrolet.

My favorite still is Ronnie & the Daytonas, whose "Little GTO" swept the charts in 1964, singing the praises of perhaps the ultimate muscle car that was manufactured by Generals Motors' Pontiac Division.

Little GTO, you're really looking fine

Three deuces and a four-speed and a 389

Listen to her tachin' up now, listen to her why-ee-eye-ine

C'mon and turn it on, wind it up, blow it out GTO.

Wa-wa, (Yeah, yeah, little GTO)

Wa,wa,wa, wa,wa,wa (Yeah, yeah, little GTO)

Wa-wa, (Yeah, yeah, little GTO

Wa, wa, wa, wa, wa, wa (Yeah, yeah, little GTO)

Wa-wa, (Ahhh, little GTO)

Wa. Wa, wa, wa, wa, wa.

Still great after nearly 50 years, wouldn't you agree?

Wa. Wa, wa, wa, wa, wa.

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