The Used-Car Kings of the Dazzling Danforth
There are more cars per mile on Toronto's neon-splattered Danforth Avenue than anywhere else in Canada. Sixty dealers make forty thousand sales a year, including an occasional 'stove' or 'Holstein'
THE DANFORTH (to whose inhabitants the definite article is as essential a badge of class as the “the” in The Mall or the “el” in El Prado) is an avenue about four miles long running through the east end of Toronto. To the startled visitor its glittering lights, waving banners and brightly colored pillars and pylons give it the appearance of a midway or headquarters for an old-home week. But the Danforth’s gunk and glitter pay honor to something more prosaic—the second-, thirdor even fourth-hand automobile.
The Danforth is Canada’s largest and brightest used-car market. Its acres of vacant space are covered with brightly polished cars on sixty different. lots ranging from two-hundred-foot expanses to corner strips of only a few feet of frontage. More than four thousand cars worth nearly five million
dollars are on sale there at any given time. All of them stand in ordered ranks from the sidewalk edge to the rear of the lots, seventy-five to a hundred feet back. Moving slowly through the rows of cars are hordes of buyers, slamming doors, kicking tires, peering at speedometer readings with unconcealed and well-justified scepticism and gazing under hoods at motors which could probably tell much but are exasperatingly dumb. And the buyers buy. More than forty thousand cars a year are sold on the Danforth for a total turnover of about forty-five million dollars. From under the glow of the Danforth’s multi-colored wattage a buyer drives away every five minutes of a twelve-hour day, every day m the week. Between two and five o’clock on some Saturday afternoons, the peak buying hours of the week, an estimated twelve hundred cars are sold.
The Danforth’s pre-eminence is not difficult to explain. As the centre of a huge consumer market which is also close to the source of supply, Toronto offers the lowest used-car prices in Canada. Although dealers elsewhere in the city dispute it, Danforth dealers claim their heavy turnovers enable them to undersell dealers elsewhere in Toronto. In prewar days there were fewer than twenty dealers on the street. Then its potentialities seemed to be recognized all at once by a lot of people. The two acres on which two of the street’s larger dealers, Stoney’s Car Market Ltd. and Ted Davy Ltd., are doing business side by side were priced at twenty thousand dollars in 1940. Two years ago Davy refused six hundred thousand for his lot alone. The average lot east of Pape Avenue, which intersects the Danforth at its first mile, was priced at fifty dollars a foot in the early Forties. Now you’d have to go at least three miles beyond that point to get land for fifteen hundred dollars a foot. Early this year Pat McSweeny sold a hundred and fifty-six feet of street frontage to Jack Leonard for two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. For more than ten years vacant land has been worth more on the Danforth than land occupied by buildings. In that time a dairy, an animal hospital, a dry-cleaning plant, two apartment buildings and two houses have been bought up and demolished to make way for used-car lots.
Although the Danforth has all the atmosphere of a big county fair it is no one-night stand. Max Waylen, one of the street’s bigger dealers, says, “We don’t do business in tents.” Most Danforth dealers have well-built office buildings of from half a dozen to twenty rooms; they are usually located at the backs of the lots. Many are air conditioned and elaborately furnished. On the owners’ mahogany desks are silver - framed portraits, hand - tooled leather desk sets and Swedish glass ash trays, just as there are on t he desks of railroad presidents and investment dealers. Even the smallest dealers go in heavily for neon and floodlighting.
Franchised new-car dealers, who always have plenty of trade-ins to sell, long ago awoke to the value of a stand on the Danforth. Half a dozen
have established branch sales depots on the street, with emphasis on their used cars. A visitor along the Danforth is surprised at the number of restaurants, especially small coffee bars and grills. They have sprung up to take care of the street’s transient population, in town for a few hours from twenty or two thousand miles out, to pick up a car on the Danforth. About sixty percent of the buyers are from other parts of Canada. Danforth dealers are never surprised to hear a customer give his address as Glace Bay, Revelstoke or Whitehorse. An RCAF man bought a used car on the Danforth not long ago. He is stationed in Labrador. He keeps the car in Quebec City and flies down to drive it when on leave.
A few’ months ago Ben Smith, a Danforth salesman, received a letter from a Dublin man containing a draft for a thousand dollars on a Toronto bank. The writer wanted Smith to pick out a car for him at that price and store it until he arrived in Canada. A couple of months later the Dubliner picked up his car and drove to his new job at Chalk
River, Ont. “He had been reading some Toronto papers l>efore coming out here,” Smith explains. “He saw that ads by Danforth dealers outspaced all others and just, happened to pick our firm out. of the bunch.”
The least persuasive salesman on the Danforth can’t help making four t housand dollars a year and the hustlers earn from ten thousand up. One of them, Ed Law, is a race-horse owner, a hobby which, as they w’ould say on the Danforth, is not for grocery clerks. Several of his colleagues go to the Bahamas for a few’ w’eeks in the winter.
But selling on the Danforth is a grueling job. Salesmen work a seventy-hour week twelve hours a day Monday to Friday and ten on Saturday, with one day off a week. Most of them are drifters. One dealer thinks t his is not because of a basic character weakness but because even though working conditions are pretty much the same all along the street, there is the hope that life on the next lot may be a little easier. One man, Charlie Yates, suddenly left the Danforth for good two years ago and went to work on a bread wagon. “One week I had made a hundred and fifty dollars and the next week I was making fifty, which is all I have made in any week since,” Yates says. “But I have a decent amount of time with my family now, and I feel better.”
Salesmen are paid by commission only, but they find that arrangement satisfactory. Most of them came to the Danforth lots from new-car dealers’ show rooms in order to make more money.
The largest lot on the Danforth and therefore the largest used-car lot in Canada is Ted Davy’s. Davy is a slim, six foot, soft-spoken man who started his used-car selling career with a 1935 Pontiac and a 1933 Ford in a Queen Street alley in 1941. His office in those days was the back seat of the car he happened to be selling. A year later he moved up to the Danforth and started to grow.
In 1953 he did nearly two and a half million dollars’ worth of business and he expects to pass three million this year. Davy now has his own finance company to handle time-payment sales, a twenty-two-room office building which raises its neat modern lines at the rear of his lot, and spends nine hundred dollars a month for electric lighting. “The used-car business seems to suit me,” Davy drawls in classic understatement. “ft’s better than selling double-dip ice-cream cones, anyway,” he adds, referring to one of his many pre-1941 excursions in salesmanship.
Davy’s stature as a salesman was given an unusual form of recognition two years ago when a brand-new cream-colored Cadillac convertible was driven up to his door, with the compliments of General Motors of Canada, provided he would give up the used-car business and take out a GM franchise for a Buick-Cadiliac dealership. He turned the offer down but bought the convertible—wholesale of course.
Davy, still in his middle thirties, is one of the youngest self-made millionaires in Canada. He flies his own Ryan Navion four-passenger plane, but not half as much as he would like to. He also owns a four-passenger Fleet Canuck. equipped with floats, for flying in lake country. He credits much of his success to lavish advertising. His display ads, built around the slogan “Try Ted Davy,” are familiar to all Toronto newspaper readers and his midnight to morning disc-jockey radio program catches a large percentage of the people of southern Ontario who are awake during those hours. The total advertising bill runs to about eighty thousand dollars a year.
Beside Davy’s lot, and almost as large, is the equally famous Stoney’s. When its second and third Toronto lots and one each in Hamilton, St. Catharines and Oakville are added to the Danforth headquarters, Stoney’s becomes the largest used-car dealer in Canada. Last year the gross exceeded five million dollars. Stonewall (that’s his name) Spivak is the founder. His brother Phil is now president but Stoney, the older of the two, remains head of the firm without title. When still handling a stock which could be counted on the fingers of their four hands, the Spivak brothers were advertising as “Stoney’s—The Greatest Name in the Used-Car Business.” By reducing their personal standard of living to the minimum and parleying
every nickel into more stock and more space with which to display it, they soon had the name in lights twenty feet high and the slogan making a good deal more sense.
Gar Hamilton of Hamilton-Stiles, another big name on the street, thinks Stoney is one of the greatest promoters Canada has ever seen. “It didn’t have to be cars,” Hamilton says. “It just happened that way. It could have been real estate, insurance or a baseball team. Spivak would have been tops at any of them because he has tire promoter’s instinct.”
Stoney Spivak’s memory for detail is startling. He customarily has seven hundred and fifty cars on six lots in four cities and towns, and he knows every car as an individual. He gets a kick out of having the classified-ad men from the newspapers drop in for the daily order. Without looking out the window to the lot he will rattle off the make, year, model, color and price of fifty or more cars to be advertised that day.
Most Danforth dealers sell new a» well as used cars, with the ratio of about one new to twenty used. Stoney
claims to be the first to have tried this and he has been the most successful. He sells new cars at a discount on the list price, having bought them at wholesale, sometimes less than wholesale. Being able to cut the regular franchised new-car dealers’ prices still gives him a profit and it is a powerful factor in bringing customers to the lot. Last year he sold a thousand new cars, far more than many a franchised dealer turns over. Stoney has no direct dealings with any manufacturer; he gets his new cars from franchised dealers who find themselves overloaded.
Stoney’s pioneered the policy of refusing to handle any car which had been driven as a taxi, police car, fleet car or hire vehicles, no matter what its age or apparent condition. The company was stung only once. A minister drove a two-year-old Chevrolet onto the lot to trade on a new car. The Chev looked clean so the deal was made without too careful a check. But when the car got into the mechanic’^ hands at the Stoney garage he found that it was not equipped with the type of generator which is factory installed on that particular model. “He got suspicious right away,” Phil relates. “It could only mean that the original generator had been replaced by ont; of the out-sized kind they use for twoway radio, like on a taxi or police car, so he checked further.”
The mechanic found that such a radio had been used. He then scraped off enough of the paint to discover that the car was a Holstein—the name given to highway patrol cars of the Ontario Provincial Police because of their broad black and white color jobs. “Well, we took the loss—sent it to the junk man,” Phil sorrowfully concludes. “But it wasn’t the minister’s fault,” he quickly adds. “He had bought it from its second owner just a few months previously. It was the second owner who had taken it off the cops’ hands.”
A market as large as the Danforth can’t maintain its stock on normal trade-ins and cash purchases. More than half the cars found on the street went there from other dealers in Toronto or from places as far as two hundred miles away. Bill Nicholls started the mass-buying technique when he bought out a bankrupt Quebec dealer in 1935. There were fifty-seven cars in the lot. Nicholls hired a gang of drivers and brought the whole stock i to the Danforth. Most of the cars bought outside Toronto for the Danforth lots are distress merchandise, the symbols of unwise buying or trading by other dealers, franchised or otherwise, in other places.
On the Danforth, as well as off it, speed of turnover is the margin bet ween success and bankruptcy. Ted Davy becomes uneasy if a car is standing on his lot more than fifteen days. He then begins to shave prices a little; after thirty days he starts to cut in earnest. Bill Nicholls says, “They have to move by thirty days; sixty days is the absolute maximum and if there’s a car on the lot ninety days you can steal if.” When a car has been passed up too often, even after one or two markdowns, it may be sent to a small town.
A salesman can pick up a few extra dollars on his day off by taking a busman’s holiday and peddling a slow mover at Danforth prices in a community a hundred or a hundred and fifty miles away.
Because of the low prices in Toronto several enterprising men make a regular practice of buying a car on the , street, driving it to some other city or town, and selling it at a hundred dollars or more above the Toronto price.
Car prices increase at a rate of about a dollar a mile as you leave Toronto, Danforth dealers claim. They add that this yardstick can be used for about two hundred and fifty miles. Beyond the province the increase is roughly about seventy-five dollars on top of that for every succeeding province to the east or west of Ontario. Some prices paid on the Danforth would be mouthwatering to a man in Nanaimo, B.C.. or Sydney, N.S. At the beginning of the year a 1951 Chev Deluxe sedan with heater and radio could be bought for eleven hundred and fifty dollars; a two-tone 1952 Dodge Coronet sedan was fifteen hundred with all equipment and new 1953 Chevs, Fords, Plymout hs and Pontiacs were going at four hundred to six hundred dollars less than Atlantic or Pacific; coast prices.
Danforth dealers figure that it costs twenty-five dollars to place a car on che lot. That’s for cleaning up and superficial checking and servicing. Mechanical work may add upward of two hundred dollars to that bill. After that, overhead adds two dollars a day to the cost price of each vehicle. No dealer will flat ly refuse a trade-in, even though it’s a car which has to be started by cranking; but the trade-ins of that sort are not factors for serious appraisal. They go straight to the wrecker and the wrecker’s price is what the; customer gets. In recent years the heaps (a word which is now passé on the street; such cars are called tough-cars,
stoves or iron) have been disappearing from Danforth lots. The larger dealers may have a few at the back of their lots—“for the unemployed” as one man puts it—but no car more than four years old will be found in the first two or three rows. The man with an old car to trade in doesn’t find the usedcar dealer as helpful as he would the franchised dealer. “The franchised dealer has so many new cars he has to unload that he’ll take a cut on his new-car profit when making an allowance on a trade-in,” one Danforth dealer says. “We don’t have to do
that. With us it’s a case of buying one used car and selling another one. We have to stick closer to the actual value of each.”
Many dealers soap their prices on the windshields but whether they do or not there is nothing arbitrary about the original asking price. At certain times of the year the margin left for haggling is wide. The writer, at one lot last December, could have bought a 1952 Customline Ford four-door, with white sidewalls, radio, heater, new slip covers and a few other extras, for fifteen hundred and fifty dol-
lars. The asking price was seventeen hundred and thirty-five dollars.
But although haggling is an honored custom. Max Waylen estimates half an hour as the average time to close a deal. “Ten minutes to buy, twenty minutes to sell,” is the way salesman Nick Foreman puts it. As for prices, Will Meggeson says with refreshing candor, “We buy for as little as we have to pay and sell for as much as we can get. That ’s what 's known as the free-enterprise system. Otherwise we’d be taken for a bunch of Communists.”
Although a stroll along the Danforth is a feast for the eye of the car-hungry, there is danger under some of those hoods for the unknowing and sometimes for the knowing. One of the larger dealers told the writer in a sudden burst of frankness, “There are cars on that lot (meaning his own) which I wouldn’t want to see my worst enemy buying.” Then he added more cheerfully, “But my worst enemies don’t buy their cars here, so it’s all right.” While most of the men on the street handle cars which give the buyer value, some regard a really fair transaction as a defeat. “There are still a few canasta players,” one dealer disgustedly admits. “Fellows who wear colored shirts, and all that. But they’re going fast. You need goodwill in this business just like in any other and you can’t get goodwill by rooking the public.”
Turning back speedometers is not considered unethical. Everyone does it and everyone expects it to be done. But there are some tricks which are regarded as unethical, and they still have their practitioners. You can find ex-taxis, fleet cars and police cars hiding under a quick, single-coat paint job —which will wear off after half a dozen chamois polishings. Such a car will last from ten to five hundred miles before the heavy repair bills start; the price you have paid will be the same as for a good car of former private ownership. Few dealers fill the transmission and differential housings with ground cork and sawdust any more. That was a favorite remedy for gear noises in the pre-1939 cars. Later models have such fine tolerances that there is no room for foreign substances; it is still effective in the early models, though. A mixture of heavy oil and white lead in the crankcase still stops piston slap, at least long enough for the hapless buyer to get a few miles away from the lot. Then it quickly burns out and the burnt-out bearings and tie rods are the buyer’s worry. Doctoring a leaking rad with certain compounds will stop the leak and clog the whole cooling system in doing so; but cracked blocks and heads can be sealed, though they are never the same again. Tires can he cut so skilfully that the treads appear to be as good as new. But it means shaving off the base rubber to a thinness of about one sixteenth of an inch—not a safety factor by any means.
Probably the only thing resembling a genuine secret to buying a good used car lies in picking the right dealer. Often a hired mechanic is helpful but Danforth dealers warn that it’s important to know the mechanic. Many mechanics have been known to take the salesman aside and ask for a cut on the commission in return for unloading a “stove” on the trusting customer.
Besides availing himself of genuine help from a mechanic the buyer can be guided to some extent by the kind of warranty the dealer is offering. On new cars, a used-car dealer will offer the same unconditional guarantee as will the franchised dealer; and many used-car dealers will also give new-car warranty to the buyer of a used car —even models one or two years old. On other comparatively late-model cars they will give a thirty-day fifty-fifty warranty; which means they will pay half the repair bills for the first thirty days. When a warranty deal is offered, the buyer can be reasonably certain that he is getting something in reasonably good shape mechanically. On an as-is deal the risks are obviously greater.
A buyer may also form the greater part of his judgment on the appearance of the car and be safe. A careful inspection of the tire sidewalls w»ill show if a previous driver was the kind who
rammed into curbs when parking and careened around generally, playing his brake and accelerator like organ treadles. Such handling leaves a car at the brink of a series of major repair bills. Clean upholstery and floor coverings and unmarked paint work are signs of careful handling. A dealer is governed by these factors when buying a used car so a buyer can’t do better than consider them too.
Just what redress there is for a buyer who has been bilked depends on the nature of the fraud. If a car has been represented as being of a later year than it actually is and the buyer can prove it, he may bring a charge of false pretences against the dealer; but for finding himself stuck with a wreck sold without misrepresentation of year or make he has only himself to blame, “Let the buyer beware” is the only legal pronouncement which can be made in most cases, W. O. Gibson, Crown Attorney for Toronto courts, says.
“Everyone thinks of the used-car dealer as a horse-trader out to harpoon the innocent public,” one dealer complains. “How about when the innocent public sticks it into the dealer? It happens.” Curiously enough it does. And frequently.
They’ve Got to Have Wheels
Although dealers have long been wise to the car thief who asks to take a car for a trial run and is never seen again, unless in a police line-up, they still are taken in every once in a while. The rule is for a salesman to accompany every prospective buyer when making a test run “because of insurance regulations,” as it is tactfully explained. But vigilance is often relaxed and sometimes the car is found months later, miles away, under a new coat of paint, if it is found at all. The commonest and costliest gyp played by the public is the selling of a car with a lien or other attachment on it and representing it to be clear of such encumbrances.
Ontario, like most other provinces, has no central bureau of registration for liens and chattel mortgages. British Columbia and Saskatchewan are the only provinces which have. In Ontario all such records are kept within the county in which the financing has been done. Whether a lien or chattel mortgage has been put on a car is unknown to the dealer who is offered the car and he can’t find out in less than three or four days. When the mortgagee traces the car down, the dealer is obliged to surrender it without a murmur and swallow the loss. An executive of an automobile sales fij nance company with offices on the Danforth estimates that frauds perpetrated against dealers on the street would number about nine or ten a month.
Another cause for grief on the Danforth is that phenomenon of the age, the man (or youth) who has to be on wheels, no matter what. “A good example of the car-crazy type took a toughie from us about six months ago,” a salesman relates. “A few weeks later his wife called me up and told me to go down and collect the car. She said we would only be repossessing it soon anyway, so we might as well get the agony over with now. I went down to the address she gave me. It was in a slum district. They were a family of five, living in one room. When I arrived it was plain to see that the missus had won the argument, but the guy put up a feeble last stand. After one or two pitches which his wife and I tossed right back at him he said, ‘But I have to have a car or else people will think I’m a failure.’ ” if