Those Were the Days: When Lots of Detroit Reporters Drove Nice Cars

By William B. Mead

In 1965, I was named Detroit bureau manager for United Press International, a formidable worldwide news organization. Detroit then was the nation’s fifth most populous city and its economy was strong, thanks to the Big Three auto makers–General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler.

The three companies eagerly showed off their new models to the press by offering “loaners”–new cars you could borrow, often with no deadline for return. I worried that this amounted to bribery, but the public relations reps assured us that they were not investing in favorable coverage. No, they just wanted journalists to be familiar with their newest models.

For a time I tried to discourage the use of loaners but our staffers were young and underpaid and the chance to drive a new car was a morale boost. Anyway, as we rationalized it, the system was ingrained. Old-timers told me that new Frigidaire and Philco home appliances used to be appear at news bureaus at Christmas time: Help yourselves, gents, that new Frigidaire refrigerator or Philco dishwasher is yours. Frigidaire was owned by General Motors and Philco by Ford. Chrysler made tanks for the Army but never offered us one.

News back then was transmitted by teletype and even our teletype operators sometimes drove loaner cars. They certainly weren’t being bribed. So my sense of virtue unraveled as I sat in the driver’s seat of a new Cadillac limousine, borrowed to carry me in style to a convention of Michigan news editors.

Glitches were quickly smoothed over by friendly public relations representatives. A new reporter came to work one day, temporarily leaving his wife and family behind. He latched on to a loaner, hit the roadhouses, got drunk, wisely took a taxi back to his hotel, and awoke the next morning wondering where he had left that car. He sheepishly confessed to the PR rep, who assured him they’d find the car, don’t worry, call any time.

Our auto writer, Dave Chute, sometimes needed two cars once his daughter reached driving age. One day the daughter’s Chevy loaner backed into Dave’s Ford loaner in a memorable double-loaner-fender-bender. The PR men sent tow trucks with reassuring words and offers of more loaners to come.
Bill Mead worked many years for UPI, as bureau manager in Detroit and as a reporter/editor in Richmond, Chicago, and Washington. He then moved into magazine work, as Washington correspondent for Money magazine and then as a writer and editor for The Washingtonian.  He has authored six books on baseball history. His latest work is the ebook Come Back Moo, a biography of his remarkable grandfather. 

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