Breaking It In

I seem to have reached the age where everything reminds you of something. We were watching TV last night and a car commercial came on that showed a family accepting delivery of a new car. That’s a big event in the life of any family and certainly evokes happiness in all those involved. Unfortunately, I once witnessed the delivery of a new car that started out as a happy occasion but then turned to worms before once again becoming a happy time.

It was the fall of 1952 and I was a Junior in high school. I was lucky in that I was taking part in an occupational training program that allowed me to get out of school every day at 2:00 PM and go to work. I was working at Howard Motors, our local Chevrolet/Buick dealer. I was doing a little bit of everything…washing and waxing cars, lubricating them, undercoating, sweeping the shop, cleaning the restrooms, and waxing and buffing the showroom floor.

One day, a man named Harold came in and talked to one of the new-car salesmen. I knew Harold and knew that he was a successful farmer who lived a few miles south of town. You could drive past his place and everything always looked fresh and new. The house and barn always seemed to be newly painted, the yard was mowed, and the fences were tight and in good repair. What’s more, he was a very nice man.

Harold spent an hour or so with the new-car salesman, talking and then taking a test drive in a demonstrator. Then, they got the Used Car Manager to appraise his trade-in. I don’t remember what kind of car it was but do recall that it was several years old but looked well cared for. They made a deal that afternoon and Harold got in his trade-in and drove off.

A few days later Harold and his family came in to take delivery of their new car. They had purchased a new 1952 4-door Chevrolet sedan with automatic transmission. Chevrolet didn’t offer a V8 until 1955 so this was an in-line 6 cylinder engine. As I recall, the car was white with a gray top.

I finished cleaning the windows of the new car and was transferring tools and other items from one trunk to the other. Again, I was impressed with what a nice family they were. The parents were well dressed and the two kids looked like they had on their Sunday best and they were well mannered.

Bud, the salesman was busy giving last minute instructions on the importance of breaking in the engine correctly. At that particular time in automotive history, alloys and the machining process weren’t as good as they are today. After driving 100 miles, the oil pan and motor oil might contain some minute metal shavings that had been dislodged as the engine wore in. To combat this problem, the engines came from the factory filled with a “break-in” oil. It was said to be imperative that you change this oil after 100 miles of driving so that no errant metal shavings could damage the engine. New owners were also exhorted to drive carefully and at reduced speeds in order to give the piston rings an opportunity to seat properly and function as they should. These instructions for breaking in the engine were given in detail in the Owner’s Manual and were an important part of the salesman’s delivery spiel. Bud finished his instructions, ending with a final warning to take it slow and easy. Harold and the family waved and drove off. Another happy customer hitting the road.

Normal work continued and after a while I saw the Service Manager, Kenneth Markley, get in the wrecker and drive off. Kenny was back in less than an hour and pulled into the shop with Harold’s new ’52 Chevy hanging on the hook behind him. The car didn’t appear to be damaged as if in a wreck so we were curious to find out what had happened. We crowded around Kenny as he started telling the bad news. Harold and his family barely got back to the farm before the Power Glide transmission gave up completely. Driving carefully and not wanting to overtax that new engine, Harold had put the car in “Low” and driven 20 mph all the way home. By the time they got there, smoke was coming from under the car and it smelled as if the whole thing was burning up. Harold called the shop, told Bud what had happened, and probably felt like an idiot.

After hearing the story, the guys in the shop thought it was a dumb thing to have done. However, as they talked, they realized that none of them had felt real sure of themselves the first time they drove an automatic. The sales manager finally decided they may have been a bi overzealous in their warnings about driving too fast and harming the engine. He determined that the shop should pay for a new transmission.

The replacement transmission was ordered from Chevrolet and arrived in a couple of days. The Shop Foreman, Kenny Dickinson, jumped on the project and in a couple of hours had the car back in “new car” condition. Bud, the salesman, and the Sales Manager delivered the car to Harold’s home. They spent some time talking with Harold about the Power Glide transmission and the other new features of the car. Harold and his family appreciated the efforts of the Sales Department and the company and returned to feeling good about their new car.

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