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Car dealers once traded a show for a sale

Recession? Car sales plummeting? Sounds like 1958 to Roger Bacon.

“It was horrible,” said Bacon, who hawked Fords back then on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and other local stations.

So horrible he was willing to barter with customers.

“I took a cemetery lot as a down payment,” Bacon said. “I took 7 1/2 acres in San Bernardino. I took a newspaper published the day after Lincoln was shot.”

His strategy didn’t hurt. Bacon and Sons Ford of Hermosa Beach became one of the biggest Ford dealers west of the Mississippi.

Bacon, his brother, Robert, and his father, Les, built their ads around the phrase, “Get off your couch and get on down to Bacon Ford!” achieving a measure of immortality when a syndicated comic strip made a joke about the motto. Their billboards carried drawings of a slab of bacon.

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Their salesmen sometimes wore costumes and picketed passing motorists.

It was a wacky era when many dealers in Southern California had offbeat trademarks.

Earl “Madman” Muntz dressed up like Napoleon and said of his cars: “I’d give ‘em away but my wife won’t let me.”

A dealer who called himself Honest John wore a halo.

Animals were good props, too. Fletcher Jones (whose son is now a Mercedes-Benz dealer) would appear with a puppy that he had rescued from a pound.

The elder Jones would encourage viewers to adopt their own pups (and if you wanted to buy a car from him, that was fine, too).

Chick Lambert was accompanied by his dog Storm in his commercials.

And Cal Worthington would poke fun at both Jones and Lambert.

“I’d say, ‘I found this little fellow at the pound -- go get one,’ ” Worthington recalled. “And it would be a gorilla.”

A live gorilla.

Other times, Worthington would introduce “his dog Spot,” which would be a live animal -- a hippo, a bear, a goose -- anything but a dog.

Nowadays, with flashier car commercials emphasizing horsepower and sex appeal, the use of offbeat stunts seems to have passed. Besides, animal groups would look with disfavor upon Worthington riding a hippo. Of course, he is 87 now.

But he is still pitching cars, though the ads are mostly businesslike since there isn’t much time for comedy.

“Commercials are shorter because the time is so expensive,” Worthington said. “Nowadays, we do it in 30 seconds. We used to have two minutes.”

The first televised car commercials were not only longer, they were live -- with occasional surprises.

In his autobiography, KTLA newsman Stan Chambers recalls doing a spot in which he was supposed to drive a “magnificent 1956 Dodge,” but when he depressed the clutch, the car bucked twice and “the smooth ride off stage became a series of halting starts.” Announcer Dick Lane once slapped a fender during a TV commercial and it fell to the ground.

Roger Bacon inherited his flair from his father. “He had a corral of two or three horses” at one car lot, the son said. “And a sign that said, ‘Trade in your old nags here.’ ”

When Bacon damaged cars, it was on purpose.

During breaks in a demolition derby, he would bang away on a not-so-prized used car with a baseball bat. “I’d say, ‘We are gonna let you have it for $300,’ ” he said. “Bang. ‘No, it’s $200.’ Bang. ‘No, it’s $100.’ And so on.”

Or, atop a horse named Denver, he would approach a car and “I’d say to Denver, ‘What do you think about this one?’ When I put both heels in his ribs -- gently -- he’d kick the car and put a dent in it.”

Being a Ford dealer, he used a Chevy for the stunt. “Guess General Motors doesn’t make ‘em like they used to,” he’d wisecrack.

The Bacons also had a cigar-smoking ape named Robert who appeared to drive a Thunderbird across the car lot. Actually, the creature would steer while an employee lying on the floor operated the brake and accelerator. “Robert’s gone ape over Thunderbirds,” Roger Bacon would tell viewers.

After his father’s death in 1959, though, the business stopped being fun for him and he sold it. Later he repurchased the land and built the present-day Ralphs shopping center there.

And the cemetery lot? “I sold it,” said Bacon, who is 70-ish and still has a body builder’s physique. “But I still have the land in San Bernardino. I can’t find that Lincoln newspaper, though.”

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steve.harvey@gmail.com


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