The year was 1967.
Dustin Hoffman debuted in The Graduate. A Time magazine reviewer at the time said: OK, he was good, but can he handle other acting roles besides that of a disillusioned youth corrupted by decadent elders? An adult character in the movie oozed of artificiality with his “one word” of advice: “plastics.” Turns out, anyone who took that tip would have done well.
Hollywood trials and tribulations of youth aside, 1967 was when U.S. troop levels in Vietnam reached 520,000, China announced it had the H-Bomb, the average cost of a new home was $24,600, the average household income $7,000 and a gallon of gas 33 cents. Dealers sold new cars such as the Pontiac Tempest, Plymouth Fury and Rambler Rebel for about $2,000.
It also was the year I went to Europe with a bunch of other teenagers. They were children of auto dealers. I was the exception as the son of an auto journalist who wrote about dealers.
I'm not sure how many of us back home were as confused and disillusioned as Dustin Hoffman's young Benjamin Braddock in “The Graduate.” But as a group abroad we sure had fun. And, oh yeah, learned a lot, too.
Seeing to the latter was the National Automobile Dealers Assn. It organized the trip for members' offspring.
“The program definitely doesn't exist any more and it appears to have ended in 1975 or so,” says NADA's Jeff Beddow. He and colleague Marc Stertz helped me out by digging into the association's archives for some background.
“I'm glad you brought it to my attention,” says Beddow. “I wasn't aware of it, but what a great program.”
It was. It started in 1959 as a summer foreign exchange in which NADA members hosted children of European dealers and vice versa.
But American applications to go to Europe outnumbered European applications to come here. So the NADA International Relations Committee began offering annual European tours for dealers' sons and daughters. I hooked up with one of those trips.
Two adult chaperones led our group. One was an older fellow, a no-nonsense veteran of such trips. The other was a younger fellow, a rookie at trying to oversee a horde of American teenagers on a 21-day romp through Denmark, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France and England.
The older guy kept us in line with the ultimate threat of calling our folks and dispatching us home if we violated the various rules, such as sneaking out of our hotel rooms to partake in self-guided, after-hours pub crawls and the like.
Our NADA chaperones kept it educational. They conducted study sessions on the opera we were to attend in Rome and the play we were to see in Stratford-upon-Avon. We studied Macbeth, expecting to see it with academy-award winner Paul Scofield in the lead role. Due to a mix-up, we ended up seeing All's Well That Ends Well.
We visited not only West Berlin, but East Berlin at a time when few American tourists ventured to that bleak zone. Before the border crossing, our older chaperone issued one of his warnings: Don't get cute with the dour East German guards — or else! Or else what, they'd call our parents?
A few wild and crazy times aside, we were a tame group. As we waited at one airport, a woman approached our lead chaperone and told him she'd never seen a better-behaved group of young American travelers. He relayed that to us, making us wonder if we were too good.
Then again, when we gathered one night in Paris, minding our own business, a young Frenchman, recognizing us as Americans, approached a countryman and said in accented English, intentionally loud enough for us to hear: “Don't you think Americans are the worst people in the world?” He proved otherwise.
It was a terrific trip with a great group of dealer kids. Today, I can't recall one name. I once had a booklet containing everyone's name and bio. That's long lost, and my mind, 37 years later, could use a few more memory chips.
Perhaps some of my former fellow travelers are now dealers themselves who subscribe to Ward's Dealer Business magazine. If so, I'd love to hear from you.
Steve Finlay is editor of Ward's Dealer Business. He is at [email protected].