In March of 1986, after five and a half years working as a Service Advisor at Smythe Volvo in Summit NJ, it was time to make a move. This was not an easy decision. My fellow employees at Smythe had become more than co-workers; we spent significant time together outside the shop too. The dealer management on the whole was very supportive, business was good, and I could have easily stayed right where I was.
That was the problem. I was restless. There was no possibility for any upward movement, at least in the short term. I felt ready to go into management, and when I saw the ad for Service Manager at what promised to be New Jersey’s first Acura dealer, I jumped at the opportunity.
Acura was a name known only to industry insiders in early 1986. Parent company Honda had announced a plan to move upmarket by introducing a new line of automobiles, the first Japanese carmaker to do so. Today, we take Acura (and Lexus and Infiniti) for granted. But this was a bold move on Honda’s part, and not a guaranteed success.
The job interview went well, and I was offered the position at a slightly higher salary than my current one, with the typical veiled promises of “more money for you if we do well”. With great reluctance and more than a slight foreboding, I gave my notice to Smythe. When I told them what I was going to do, they congratulated me. When I told them for whom I would be working, they cautioned me.
The less said about my new employer Bob Ciasulli, the better. Suffice to say that if Google had existed in 1986 and I had checked (try it), I might not have taken the job. But, I did, and as difficult as it was, it was worth it.
There were positive aspects to my time there. It was exciting to get in on the ground floor of a new car brand, an opportunity that rarely comes along. The first Acura models, the 3- and 5-door Integra hatch, and the 4-door Legend sedan, were remarkably good cars. For the first time in my automotive career, I had a demonstrator car, an Integra LS with a 5-speed, which was an absolute blast to drive. I learned a lot about management and about dealer operations.
I began the job in mid-March, about three weeks before the cars officially went on sale. The building was still under construction, with makeshift sales and service areas. Meanwhile, cars started to arrive, and it was part of my responsibility to make sure that they stayed safe and secure, stored as they were in a construction zone. It would be many months before the building was finished.
Once sales began in early April, it was presumed that I would work Saturdays in the temporary showroom, as not enough sales staff had been hired. So I did, finding myself faced with many who were curious about the cars. (Typical questions: “How do you pronounce A-C-U-R-A?” “What does it mean?” “Why do the engines say ‘HONDA’ on top of them?”)
The Integra was well-received, at a starting price around $10,000. The Legend was more of a challenge. Prospects did not like the limited color choices (typical Honda) nor the mandatory two-tone. There was also incredulousness that leather was not even an option, at least on those first cars. Finally, a $20,000 Japanese car gave many customers pause. (For comparison, $20,000 would get you a Volvo 760 sedan.)
I learned the hard way that taking a new job with higher salary was not always the smartest choice. The support I had at Smythe looked like a Caribbean holiday compared to the management style at the Acura store. Within months of starting work at this Jersey City location, I was poring through the classifieds again.
In August, I found it in the classified section of Automotive News. Answering the ad for a “technical Customer Service adviser” at Volvo of America, I had a clear advantage: seven years Volvo retail service experience, while not currently employed by a Volvo dealer. (At that time, Volvo corporate policy forbade the hiring of persons working at Volvo dealers unless the interviewee first obtained written permission from dealer management for an interview to take place.)
In September of 1986, Volvo of America offered me the job. To this day, that phone call stands out as a professional highlight. I still did the honorable thing by giving my manager at the Acura store two weeks’ notice. The only regretful part of leaving was saying goodbye to that demo (and perhaps some regret at not sticking around for the NSX).
Several years after I left, the Acura store at that location failed, for reasons unknown. Today, it’s Bob Ciasulli Honda. As rare as it is to see a first-generation Integra or Legend, when I do spot one, I think back to my not-brief-enough six months there.
All photographs copyright © 2017 Richard A. Reina. Photos may not be copied or reproduced without express written permission.