When watching late-night reruns of SCTV on Windsor’s CBC outlet during our teens, Amy and I expected that most of our laughs would come from the fake ads on the Canadian comedy classic, not the real ones during commercial breaks. One exception was Woody Pontiac, located across the border in Hamtramck (a suburb of Detroit surrounded on all but one side by the city of Detroit). Their pitchman was dealer Woodrow W. Woody (1908-2002), an elderly gentleman whose on-air demeanour came from an earlier era. Mr. Woody wasn’t a hard sell salesman, nor did he use gimmicks like flying around in a cape (hi Mel Farr!). No, Mr. Woody reached out to potential customers by stressing his long involvement in the car business as a genial, slightly doddering old man whose eyes were fixed on a teleprompter might do.
We imitated his exit lines for years afterward. The cheerful reassurance we’d like his dealership. The quaintness of seeing any TV pitchman from the late 1980s/early 1990s say to viewers “so long, be seeing you.” A wave goodbye to the audience that grew increasingly rubbery. Missing from this clip is an exit line he added on during his last few years on the air—“drive carefully please.”
Woody opened his Pontiac dealership in 1940. As an article in Ward’s Dealer Business noted, it wasn’t an easy start:
He applied for the Pontiac franchise in Hamtramck in 1939. At first the automaker turned him down. The Pontiac zone manager didn't expect a person of Lebanese descent to be able to thrive in downtown Hamtramck, which at the time had the highest concentrated Polish population outside of Poland.
"I said I'm dating a Polish girl and if you give me the franchise, I'll marry her," recalls Mr. Woody, who has been married to Anna for more than 50 years. "The guy started laughing and said, 'Boy, if you want it that bad, you can have it.'"
So, in January of 1940, Woody Pontiac Sales opened and sold 200 cars in its first year, advertising vehicles for $25 above cost. The next year he sold 700 to become the second-largest Pontiac dealer in Michigan.
Woody remained in the auto business until 2000, when the 92-year-old closed the lot. Even though he wasn’t personally selling cars at that point, he continued to come into the dealership five days a week to greet customers (I wonder if anyone asked him to imitate his ads on their way out of the lot office). The dealership stood vacant until it was demolished in 2009. Woody Plaza, which includes a Michigan Department of Human Services office, opened on the site last year.
Back then, we felt we were watching a semi-senile old geezer. After rediscovering Woody's ads, I find his awkwardness and soft sell approach charming in an age of tightly crafted, merciless pitchery. - JB