Lessons Learned Long Ago from Working at an Ivy League Garage
Memorable dirty dream job, life-changing takeaways.
You're only 17 once in this life, and when you're 17 things just seem to happen. They can be good or bad, wonderful even. That you might have gotten lucky doesn't really hit you until later, when you look back at the big picture and scrunch the past together with the future.
When I was 17, I got lucky. I was the "kid" at Rogers Garage, the bottom rung on a team that ran a full-service car dealership in Hanover, New Hampshire, home to Dartmouth College. Rogers Garage had deep automotive roots; it had sold Reo, then Packard, and in the summer of 1962 it was a Chevy dealer, with a line of Renaults imported from France. I was not imported. I was from nearby Lebanon, a blue-collar mill town where it was not unusual to shove gutted Fords, rusty Plymouths, and dead Studebakers into the Mascoma River, into the swirling currents still powering our failing mills. Hanover was only 5 miles away, but economically it was a bubble that rarely deflated.
Dirty dream job
My first week there was less than auspicious. Riding to work in the fog on the back of a friend's motorcycle, I took the head off a chicken and injured my toe. I hobbled around the garage parking lot, moving cars in cramped quarters (Please leave keys in car, a sign said), manning the wash bay (an oil change and a lube job got you a free wash, with ashtrays cleaned by yours truly), and prepping new Corvairs and Impalas for our small showroom. If I had a free moment, I limped up a ramp to the overhead storage area, where we kept a few gems: an Aston Martin DB4, a Cord, and a Rolls-Royce owned by the college. Up there, I slid into machines way beyond my means and was out of sight of the service manager, a short, round-faced guy named Willis who seemed preternaturally aware of my incompetence. I daydreamed of taking my girlfriend for a ride in one of the cars and making out on all that leather.
Then a young mechanic scribbled "Fuck You, Sherman" in the dusty hood of the Aston Martin, which had been left in my wash bay. The sports car was owned by Walter Paine, a local publisher, nationally known journalist, and Harvard grad. A blue blood with blue-collar inclinations, Paine liked to tune his own cars at the garage, struggling with the SU carburetors of the Jaguar 140s he raced at Lime Rock Park in Connecticut. For the life of me, I could not scrub the obscenity out of the hood of his Aston Martin. But Willis the service manager saved my job by putting in a rush order for the paint shop to redo the hood with multiple coats of silver lacquer. Then he sent me on a trip to south Boston to pick up a Renault Dauphine at the dock.
The economy sedan was popular with Dartmouth professors but was called a "tinker boy" by our mechanics. Later, Time put it in a special list of the 50 worst cars of all time, "the most ineffective bit of French engineering since the Maginot Line." I loved the stylish little French roller with its bucket seats, push-button automatic transmission, and 32-hp engine. New at city driving, I somehow got through Boston and was soon cruising on old Route 4A through the wilds of central New Hampshire, a breeze blowing through the open window, "Duke of Earl" playing on the AM radio, and not another car in sight. At last, I was tasting real life outside high school. And getting paid.
King of the lot
The Rogers Garage building was a classic, U-shaped design with the showroom connected to half-dozen work bays and with big plate-glass windows facing the parking lot. During my summer as king of the lot, the boss of the dealership was Linwood Bean, a Chevy guy. It was a great time for Chevrolet. The 1955 Chevy Bel Air, with its fenders integrated into the body for a tight, forward-looking shape, had helped spawn the money pot called the Impala, which arrived in 1958. "A car for every purse and purpose," was Chevy's motto. General Motors sold more than half the new cars in America in 1962.
We sold our share because Bean kicked the salesmen out of the showroom and on to Main Street. In their suits and wingtip shoes, they pigeonholed prospects at stores still named after their owners, like James Campion, Dartmouth Outfitters. Its owner was a gearhead named James Campion III, who often escaped his world of button-down shirts and khakis by fleeing to the garage, just two minutes away. The salesmen also went to Manchester's Gulf Station, where the mechanics wore white shirts and bow ties. Some drove out in the countryside to our satellite sales outlets, one-pump gas stations and pine-shaded fields with colored lights dangling from the trees. Salesmen even visited barnyards and walked around cow flops to pitch manure-scented farmers the latest short-bed Chevy pickup with a Powerglide automatic transmission.
Meanwhile, the kid was scrubbing and waxing cars. Staying out of trouble. That is, until the notorious Corvair incident.
What emergency brake?
The Monza Spyder was a new model. It was a sporty car, not an economy one, with a 150-hp, turbocharged, all-aluminum, flat-six engine. I was bringing one down the ramp to prep for the showroom, but another car blocked the exit. I pulled on the emergency brake, hustled down the ramp, and was moving cars when I heard a wicked crash. My sporty Monza Spyder had rolled down the ramp and bashed into a customer's sedan. Thankfully one of our mechanics demonstrated that the cause was a failure of the cable to the brakes, thereby saving my butt.
The Corvair never did impress the mechanics at Rogers Garage very much. Tim Corrette, who specialized in the car for the garage, remembers: "Valve jobs, clutch jobs, oil leaks -- it was steady work, I'll tell you." But then again, it was steady work.
There are other guys -- boys back then -- who fell under the thrall of Rogers Garage just like me and retain lucid memories of the place. George Halloran recalls, "The garage had a family feel -- a family with rules." A body shop whiz and once fast with Corvette fiberglass, Halloran says the nucleus of the place was Willis, the service manager. "He was the man. Willis had a degree of authority none of the rest of us had. He moved easily between service and sales. Being in the paint shop, I never ventured into the showroom. They frowned on that. We never ate lunch with the salesmen. They didn't sit out on the cement wall by the street with us, watching the girls go by."
Dave Thomson, who now runs the Orford Servicenter north of Hanover, New Hampshire, remembers an incident when he was 16. "We messed up the front end of my dad's 1958 Chevy wagon when he was away in Puerto Rico." Not just any old Dad, Dave's was bound for glory as the arm-the-National-Guard-with-nukes, ultraconservative governor of New Hampshire, Meldrim Thomson Jr. "I didn't know what I was going to do. You couldn't even open the doors. The only place with the front grille I needed was Rogers. I think I took Mother's maple syrup money because Dad would be home the next morning. Shorty Morrison worked all night on that thing, and Dad's car was home before Dad."
Thomson's chum Bob Sanborn says, "I remember Dave's daddy's V-8 would go 99 mph in second gear. How the hell we kept it on the road back then, I don't know." Sanborn's first new ride was bought at the garage, a Chevy Nova II paid for by a job as the assistant greenskeeper at the Hanover Country Club that paid $1.25 per hour. "It was Roman red with a red interior," he says of the Nova. "Took me 11 weeks to get. I didn't want bucket seats; I got a bench seat. Said no to the optional, fuel-injected 327-cubic-inch V-8. It was a convertible. My payments were about $68 a month."
Convertibles had the power to go straight to the loins of boys back then. Bob LaCroix, who now owns Shaker Valley Auto Sales in Enfield, New Hampshire, tells me about making his first foray up the infamous ramp at Rogers Garage when he was 15. There he suffered a surge of emotion familiar to most of us: I want that car! The car was a 1960 Chevy Impala with a 283-cubic-inch V-8. It was a convertible. Red. Paisley interior. When LaCroix turned 16, his father bought him a used 80-hp Corvair instead. The Impala convertible fell into the hands of someone else.
LaCroix remembers the Impala's fate and winces. "It was a warm night out on the Meriden Road. The guy was flying, the top down. He left the road sideways. Hit a tree. I don't remember the driver's name, but the accident broke the car in half. I do remember that car. It was a beauty."
A taste of glamour
Back in the 1960s, death shadowed more than its rightful share of teenage drivers in a time of denied engineering defects and beautiful interior surfaces so hard they could beat you to a pulp during a roll over. Not that we thought much about it. We were going to live forever, despite the Cold War. Marry a beauty. Drive sexy cars.
As I think back now to Rogers Garage, during my brief tenure everything about cars felt pretty exciting, except the washing. There was an infectious restlessness, a compressed anticipation in our downtown garage. It was a crucible that married sales, service, skill, and -- I realize now -- glamour. Glamour of a sort absent from gritty Lebanon, the town I loved. Rogers Garage wasn't a textile mill or a smelly barnyard. It was flirtatiousness, negotiations, and laughter. It was older men to admire and to fear. Cars were a big deal, and their milestones celebrated. Some events were ceremonial: Spring tune-ups were announced by cards in the mail; new model rollouts came every fall with the spectacularly colored leaves.
How was I to know it was all coming apart, that the Ivy League downtown garage marked the end of an era? One in which the casual integration of garage and town, of blue- and white-collar workers, was endangered. In southern New England, auto-shopping plazas were popping up in the suburbs and pulling dealerships from downtowns. Sprawl was becoming the norm. Demolition plans were in the wind for our landmark garage despite its history of selling Reo, the brand founded in 1905 by Ransom Eli Olds of Oldsmobile fame, and later Packard, legendary for such precision engineering that it built Rolls-Royce Merlin V-12s for British fighter planes during World War II.
The dissolution of Rogers Garage was swift. Linwood Bean took on a new partner. High rollers from New York City who did business differently got involved, and Dartmouth wanted the site for a new cultural center. By 1965, when the garage closed and soon after razed, I was out of the Air Force and off to the University of Michigan on a motorcycle, a Czech-built Jawa single-banger. It topped out around 60 mph, but I could now maintain it myself. I had been raised to think there were two possible tracks forward in this life. You could use your hands in a mill, like my father, or you could use your brain in an office. Rogers Garage showed me that you could both turn wrenches and be Ivy League smart, that work with the hands and a life of the mind need not mutually exclusive. It was a life-changing takeaway for me.
As my last job for the garage, I was assigned to the Canaan Fair. I guarded a sampling of our new 1963 models, which drew farmers like kids to cotton candy. Beneath a tent, salesmen milled with the crowd, pitching power, price, and style. Once the carnival rides stopped late at night and the last stragglers were chased away, I crawled into the back seat of a Chevy Impala and slept. I had no worries about theft or vandalism. If anyone had snuck in, it would have been my girlfriend.
The next week, I returned to high school.
Rogers Garage, RIP: 1926-1965