From the look, sound, and smell of the garland joint, we could be having this conversation 20 years ago. The beer is chilly, the burgers greasy, and the juke couldn’t be more Texas if it dispensed cream gravy. D.J. Jackson, comfortably moored to his stool, draws another Marlboro from the ever-present pack in front of him. The voluble, heavy-set salesman momentarily stops holding forth and sucks the first puff deep, then floats his next words out over a white cloud that seems to embrace the farthest corners of this after-work hangout for car people.
“The automobile business is based on lies, from top to bottom,” he says. “The manufacturer lies to dealer management, management lies to the salespeople, the salespeople lie to the ups”—that’s the customers—“and the ups are the biggest liars of all.”
Jackson blinks through his thick glasses, takes a pull on his Budweiser, then wipes his gray goatee with the back of his hand. After 42 years of selling new and used cars of every description—more than half of those years in Dallas—Jackson is ready for some straight talk. And while, from where he sits, the process of the car deal has remained fairly constant, swirling in his rear-view mirror are fleeting glimpses of some of the ways our culture and our city have changed.
“What’s never changed,” he says, “is that the up is trying to tell you that he’s got a better job than he does, that his credit is better than it is, that he’s more stable—been employed longer and for more money—than is the case. Meanwhile, we’re trying to make the most money possible on the sale. Out of all of this, if the up really wants the car, and he’s got enough cash, trade-in, or credit to justify selling it to him, the deal gets made. Because, in the end, you can’t pay too much for a car you love.
“Auto sales may be the last stand of true American free enterprise,” Jackson says. “The sticker on the window is mandated by the government, but just because I paid a dollar for an item doesn’t mean I have to sell it for a dollar. Consider that same car customer, only now he’s having a garage sale. All the detritus of his life that he was ready to throw out have suddenly become heirlooms, and he’ll try to get top dollar. But in the end, he’ll settle for the deal he can make, and everyone walks away happy. Dealership, garage sale,” Jackson says, smiling. “Same thing, pure capitalism.”
Jackson drains his Budweiser and signals to the tattooed, pregnant barmaid that we’re ready for another round. He’s one of those big men who revels in his appetites, who knows that the word “Falstaffian” applies to him because he knows Falstaff. Jackson is quite conversant with literature, particularly as it applies to him. “Those guys in Glengarry Glen Ross? All of them are all of us,” he says, sweeping his hand around the room, seemingly taking in all of North Texas. “David Mamet spoke in Dallas recently. I would have loved to have been there to ask him how much his salesmen owed to Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman.”
Jackson, 58, has been “riding a smile and shoeshine” long enough to justify comparisons to Arthur Miller’s prototypical salesman. With brief breaks for divorce and motorcycle therapy, he’s been selling cars since 1966, when he dropped out of the University of Wyoming to sell Pontiacs and other brands at his father’s Colorado dealership.
In 1977, he made $176,000 selling Volkswagens, and in 1982, he and two friends moved to Dallas to work with Big Billy Barrett, a name they helped coin and push through local advertising.
“We exploded that brand,” he says. He pauses to smile and to tend to his beer and cigarette. “Dallas during that time was a wonderful place to sell cars. Great economy, jobs everywhere, and a market ready to be plucked. Billy was an honest man, honest to his sales people, and we were motivated to make the most of it.”
Making the most of it meant sticking the not-so-savvy North Texas public with huge markups. “We were the first around here to sell cars over the sticker price,” Jackson says with pride. “We’d load ’em up with low-cost installed items, and move ’em for huge profits—Mazdas, VWs, Suburus. And the public was gullible as sh--.”
Such pirating required the usual debauched work wind-down so popular in the ’80s. “Back in the day, we used to party constantly,” Jackson says. “After work, we’d usually head to one of the Point bars, mostly the one on Greenville, and close it down. Cocaine was rampant during the ’80s—although, fortunately, I never cared for it.” He saw his fair share of use, though, including people snorting lines in the new and used cars on the lots where he worked.
Hindsight makes even the most grizzled car salesman melancholy. “Partying caused me to miss my kids growing up,” he says. “But the job has always allowed me to provide well for them.”
The economic bust of the late 1980s, and even the current double whammy of a slow economy combined with high gas prices, didn’t and haven’t affected Jackson’s income, he says. “Money’s where you make it. I’ve had some of my best years during lean times, because people always need cars, and a good salesman knows how to make them buy.”
Moving to Dallas from Colorado, he says, involved culture shock learning to relate to “white Southern Baptist thinking and black Pentecostal thinking. I grew up in a Catholic environment, and different groups relate to fear differently. And there’s lots of fear when you’re buying a car.”
The easiest adjustment, Jackson says, was switching his allegiance from the Denver Broncos to the Dallas Cowboys. “I see a guy in a Moose Johnston jersey, and I know what to say to him. And that’s the key. You don’t ask the up, you tell him. If you lead the conversation in the right way, you’ve qualified him as a buyer or a waste of time within a few seconds. Hell, I can usually size ’em up through the showroom window. Then you establish a bond with the buyer. An up comes in wearing an Aggie ring—beautiful rings by the way—you don’t ask if he’s an Aggie. You say, ‘I went to Wyoming but never graduated, but I see that you graduated from A&M.’ The more they tell you, the easier it is to find the point at which you can make the most money for your dealership and for yourself. Free enterprise.”
Jackson finished out the 1980s selling Porsches, Audis, and Mazdas in Richardson, then struck out on his own. From 1990 to 1992, he was part of a national sales training group and did independent sales. He also sold Harleys, but couldn’t make a living at it. In 1992, he went to Jim Allee, which later became Rusty Wallace, one of “the finest, most honest dealerships” in town. He stayed there for a decade.
Now Jackson sells used cars for Chacon Autos. “Best dealership I ever worked for,” he says. He also has high praise for the Sewell, Park Place, and David McDavid dealerships, all stops along the way for an itinerant car salesman.
Jackson stubs out his Marlboro. Times have changed for car salesmen, and not for the better. The Internet has armed customers with a good sense of what a car should cost. Meanwhile, the factories have cut dealer margins, and dealers have cut sales commissions. A top salesman now makes somewhere between $60,000 and $120,000 a year. A top guy at Sewell Lexus may get $160,000. Far less than the top men in the ’80s brought in.
“Like I said, we’re all Willy Loman. Cut from that same cloth,” Jackson says. “An incredible breed. But when it ends, it ends hard.” For once, I’m sure he’s not lying.
Write to Spencer Michlin at firstname.lastname@example.org.