Getting Ready to Sell Performance

Jan. 1, 2020
It's no military secret that Detroit's economy is somewhere between dead and buried. Thus, the assumption is that most car dealers probably have a second job involving customer surveys asking, "Would you like paper or plastic?" or saying, "You can su

Sellers Buick-Pontiac-GMC adds performance to the line-up.

It's no military secret that Detroit's economy is somewhere between dead and buried. Thus, the assumption is that most car dealers probably have a second job involving customer surveys asking, "Would you like paper or plastic?" or saying, "You can super size for only a quarter more." So, when you're driving down Grand River Avenue in the Detroit suburb of Farmington Hills, and you come across a car dealer with the name Sellers on the sign, you may have the feeling you've driven into another Lewis Carroll scenario.
The fact is Sellers Buick-Pontiac-GMC is one of the top 3 Detroit-area Pontiac dealers with about 250 vehicles per month leaving its 47,000-square-foot facility. Of the dealership's 95 employees, 18 make up the sales staff. I was there during an average Thursday morning, and as I observed the selling floor, there was hardly enough "down time" for someone to brew a pot of coffee, let alone sit at his or her desk with feet propped up playing one of America's most popular games—I Am Somebody. These people take their work and appearance seriously, which certainly can't hurt sales. Their upbeat attitude does the dealership proud.


Bob Sellers Pontiac was founded in 1972 in what was then a sleepy, but soon-to-be-awakened, big-time suburb. When GMC lost its independence and was merged into Pontiac, Sellers became a dual dealership. A little over a year ago, the dealership added Buick. That was also the same time frame Bob Sellers got a new owner—an affable guy with a killer name—Sam Slaughter. Slaughter has had an interesting career track.
Depending on how far back you want to go, you might say Slaughter acquired his first car inventory as a little kid with his collection of matchbox cars. Although his mother used to say he was wasting his life away by endlessly playing with his toy cars, hindsight being what it is, Slaughter now claims he was just preparing for the future. He first worked at the dealership in 1979 at the age of 17 as a porter. He then joined General Motors in 1984 and in 1985 became the marketing manager for Pontiac's mid-engine, two-seat vehicle named "Fiero."

When the Fiero, whose formal name was the 2M4 (for 2-seater, mid-engine, 4-cylinder engine) first arrived in showrooms it created quite a stir. The vehicle was viewed as a "poor man's Porsche." It was as impractical a vehicle as one could find, but the intended demographic group thought it was a winner and the mid-life crisis types were also drawn to it. When the 2M6 in a GT/Fastback body came of age as a sporty, affordable, and properly powered vehicle, insurance companies murdered it by putting such a high premium on the Fiero. Why? Because it was a two-seat "sports car." Even though a vehicle, like a Ford Mustang GT, was a relative powerhouse, the fact it had a rear seat put it in a lower insurance bracket than Fiero. In some cases, the monthly insurance premium for a Fiero was 2-3 times higher than the car payment. You don't have to be Euclid the Great Mathematician to run those kinds of numbers, so it was adios, Fiero.

After Fiero, Slaughter moved to Georgia in 1988 as Pontiac's Atlanta district manager. He eventually returned to Pontiac's Michigan headquarters building and finished up his GM career running Pontiac's Strategic Planning group. That gave him a first-hand look at what was in the pipeline for the next 10 years and it whetted his appetite to dive deeper into the auto industry's final link to the customer—the retail dealership.

He rejoined Bob Sellers Pontiac in January 1993 as the assistant sales manager. In 1996, he became vice president and then a shareholder in 2000. He moved on to the presidency in 2003 and now is the owner.

The dealership is located in a logistical dream. It's at an intersection of two major highways and is adjacent to three of Detroit's major freeways. The main building is 47,000 square feet. Soon there will be a 6,500-square-foot addition with a glass walkway between the two edifices. The new building will house the new-car showroom and have enough room to house all three brands for display. The previous showroom will be designated for used cars and, for the first time, the dealership will stock a full array of performance and aftermarket parts.

The Pontiac brand has long been associated with racing and performance vehicles. (Can you say "GTO," boys and girls?) The drag strips of America once resembled Pontiac dealerships themselves every Sunday as the 389-cubic-inch Catalina hardtops and convertibles roared down the quarter-mile with all six barrels of their tri-power manifolds gulping down gallons of 100-plus octane gasoline. One of the notable crowd-pleasing cars was a mid-size Pontiac Le Mans station wagon (nicknamed "The Gray Ghost") with a 421-cubic-inch Pontiac V-8 that put out a publicly announced 405 horsepower. It was fitted with a four-speed manual transmission with a Hurst shifter and driven by another crowd pleaser—Arnie "The Farmer" Beswick. He would take on other vehicles in the then-new "Funny Car" category. Cars, such as Ford Thunderbolts, Dodge and Plymouth Ram V-8s, and Chevrolet 409s and 427s, would most often lose the race to Beswick and his often grimy-looking little wagon. He was known to wave to the competition as he went by. He often said he needed another station wagon to take home all the trophies he'd won. (By the way, if Beswick's car had "only" 405 horsepower, then my 1964 Comet Cyclone should have won the 24 hours of Le Mans, keeping with the Pontiac theme of this article.)

The adage of "Win on Sunday...sell on Monday" rang true with performance enthusiasts going to dealerships and parts stores throughout the U.S. to buy tri-power and dual-quad Edelbrock manifolds, Hedman Headers, Isky Cams, the aforementioned Hurst shift linkage, Smitty glass-pack mufflers, and full-length Lake pipes. Hubba, Hubba!

Later years found famous people, like the Bandit, riding his 455-cubic-inch black Firebird across the country like a wild stallion. Even the Monkees had a special vehicle (built by Dean Jefferies) that began life as a Pontiac.

Eventually, the sun set on the muscle-car era. Things like a recession or two, high (for that time) fuel prices, and insurance rates that went through the roof proved to be too costly and distracting to emulate the wonder years of the late '50s, the '60s, and early '70s, which, in addition to an inexplicable decision by Detroit's major manufacturers to get out of the horsepower war, ended the muscle-car era. Even though years later the quarter-mile speed and elapsed times of the newer turbocharged four cylinders and high-revving V-6s were matching and sometimes surpassing the speed records of the big iron-block V-8s of yore, there wasn't enough cache in the new cars to endear them to a performance-interested public.


In recent years, however, new technologies in electronics, fuel injection, turbocharging, supercharging, and smooth-shifting manual and quick-shifting paddle-operated automatic transmissions brought a renewed interest in updating the halcyon days of the muscle-car years. Coming in the next year or two are new versions of the venerable Chevy Camaro and Dodge Challenger. Mustang seems to be rolling out of the factory with a higher horsepower model every week. In Pontiac's case, vehicles like Solstice, the awesomely powerful GTO (imported from Holden in Australia, it didn't sell well, but no doubt will come galloping back in the not-too-distant future) and the soon-to-be-arriving Pontiac G8 are credible representatives for a return to the high-performance, fun-driving follies.

It's the G8 that has dealer owners and sales staffs wild in the eyes. It will be the first full-size Pontiac car since the Bonneville was discontinued in 2005 and will be the first rear-wheel-drive Pontiac sedan sold in North America since the 1986 Bonneville and Parisienne. The G8 will be marginally larger than many German-built premium sedans, such as the BMW 5-Series and the Audi A6. (You don't target those two Panzers unless you have something really special in your corner.) The base level will come with a 261-horsepower, 3.6-liter V-6 with a 5-speed automatic transmission, but the second trim level—the GT—will come with a 362-horsepower, 6.0-liter Generation-IV V-8 and a 6-speed automatic transmission. The G8 should be able to hit 0-60 mph in a little over 5 seconds. Although not available initially, the rumor is there will be a 6-speed manual transmission available down the line.

The G8 will be imported from Holden's Australian Elizabeth plant. Holden, as mentioned, developed and built the most previous generation GTO and has been working on other high-performance models, some of which have been spotted around GM country in Detroit.

It's these developments that have contributed to the necessity of adding space at the Sellers dealership. No doubt there will be increased demand for performance-related parts and other aftermarket goodies that allow owners to customize their vehicles without having them built by the likes of George Barris and Chip Foose. I don't mean that pejoratively. I'm strictly referring to cost. (We should all be lucky enough to afford a Foose or Barris vehicle.)

Another reason Sellers hadn't previously been active in the performance and aftermarket area is because of the effect on residual pricing. The dealership did a lot of lease business and when any aftermarket items were factored in to the lease price, the monthly fee was so high that few customers decided to include any custom accessories. Now, however, having a range of performance accessories for the upcoming models will be similar to gold miners who asked Mr. Sutter for a job in 1848—a year before the gold discovery at Sutter's Mill.

Slaughter has overseen an annual event at his dealership that has become so popular it now attracts a lot of factory support. The event is called the Indian Summer Classic Car Show. It's held yearly in September at the dealership and attracts about 120-140 classic vehicles from all three brands. The show is not limited to tricked-out cars and pickups, although there are plenty of those. For instance, one GMC truck owner brings his vehicle every year. Everything on the vehicle is stock from the factory, but the condition of the truck and the pride of ownership are such that the man brings it every year just to "introduce it to some new friends."


There seems to be as many owners clubs as there are vehicles—whether it's a custom hot rod, a high-performance factory car, a pickup truck, or even a tractor. If it has an engine, it's probably got a fan club. In the summer, car shows in the Midwest are easy to find. At each venue there are dozens of classic vehicles—generally from the high-horsepower/four-speed transmission era. These events resemble Grateful Dead concerts because many of the same people go from show to show and load up on gossip, Big Boy hamburgers, and lawn-chair sunburns. In fly-over states, the car show season is much shorter, simply because there's no percentage in watching snow melt on a dual-quad manifold. In warmer climes, such as California and Arizona, shows can be found year-round. Having an event like the Indian Summer Classic Car Show at a Detroit-area dealership has built-in goodwill and generates a considerable amount of word-of-mouth publicity for the dealer.

There are high-volume dealerships and there are high-volume, high-integrity dealerships. In speaking with some of Slaughter's 95 employees and observing other crews, it appears Slaughter not only has a hard-working crew, but they're also highly motivated and prideful. The economic constraints of the past few years have finally driven the need for customer service into the heads of the customers. Nobody wants to spend their hard-earned money with a retailer whose apathy is worn as a badge of honor.

At 45, Slaughter is young, energetic, and has the foresight to grow his dealership in the decades to come. Right now, his 13-year-old twin daughters enjoy horseback riding and playing ice hockey. As they grow older and finally realize what pays for these things, they may someday give their father a suggestion about keeping the dealership in the family. I don't think Slaughter would try to dissuade them.

When the new addition is completed, Sellers Buick-Pontiac-GMC should be as well known for its array of performance and aftermarket parts as it is currently for its consumer appreciation. Earlier in his career, Slaughter was involved with "building excitement," which has been Pontiac's mantra for a lot of years. At this stage of his career he's selling excitement and epitomizing the eternal adage of "hard work brings its rewards."

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