In a previous column, I reviewed an April 7, 1960 edition of “Tri-Cities Shopping News & TV Guide” that featured an article about the early history of the city. Page 2 contained a column titled, “Norton’s Notions.” As I read it, I began to realize the writer was the well-known businessman of the city’s past – J. Norton Arney.
1939 (top) and 1950 Advertisements
The colorful car dealer noted that in the spring of 1924 he was employed as a salesman for Kyle Auto Sales (Paige, Jewett, Oakland dealer) located on Market Street at Montgomery. Shortly thereafter, Oakland Motor Company came out with a new automobile bearing the name Pontiac. Arney helped unload the first shipment of new cars and sold the first one.
The car was “fully equipped” with a spare tire and two bumpers and sold for $895. There was no tax, no title and not even a bill of sale to reckon with. You bought it and then drove it home. The dealership graciously put five gallons of $.48/gallon gas in the tank.
Mr. Arney related how different cars were back then: “In those days, owners never complained about their cars if they would run at all. If it would go halfway up Roan Hill in high (gear), she was a good ‘en. If she’d do 48 (miles/hour) wide open on level ground, she was a fast baby. If it would run a year without a complete overhaul, she was tops in quality. If all the screws in the old wooden body didn’t come out in six months, she was well constructed.
“If you hit a chug hole at 20 mph and could still hold on to the steering wheel, she rode like a cradle. If you could make a 25-degree curve at 10 mph and not turn over, she was well balanced and steered good. If you could go from Johnson City to Jonesboro and back without a flat tire, you had a real set of tires. If you could go to Roan Mountain without adding water more than three times, you had an automobile with a cooling system second to none.”
“When Oakland Motors came out with the Pontiac, they had just such a car and I was a proud young salesman for having the opportunity to offer that kind of an automobile to the buying public. We had plenty of competition then. In the lower price field, we had Ford and Chevrolet to contend with. In our price field, we had Essex, Durant and Overland. All dealers were aggressive and hard workers.”
Arney said he gathered copious literature so as to be well informed about his and his competition’s product. He read salesmen’s bulletins the factory published and studied the mechanism of the cars in order to answer any questions a prospective buyer might ask him. He knew all the weak points in the competitors’ automobiles and was able to convince people that his was worth a little extra money to get a better product. He made quality an important issue to mull over along with price.
J. Norton praised Bill Kyle as being a wonderful salesman, good businessman, very honest and a fine fellow, but he said that without question, he was the toughest boss any young salesman could ever have. After five years of employment with Kyle Auto Sales, Arney was offered and accepted a sales manager’s position with Preston Motor Company, his competition making twice what he was earning.
When Arney Motors came into being, the businessman adopted the slogan, “A Square Deal or No Deal.” I recall the time when a customer purchased a car from his dealership and became disgruntled over the transaction. The buyer capitalized on the business’s famous tag line by driving around town with a large sign attached to his car proclaiming, “Arney Got the Square deal and I Got the No Deal.” J. Norton Arney stands tall in Johnson City business history.