It was 1976, America's bicentennial year, and the most popular new car in the United States was the Oldsmobile Cutlass — which you could snag locally for less than $6,000.
Motor Trend's magazine's "Cars of the Year" for 1976 were the Dodge Aspen and Plymouth Volare, nearly identical compact-car cousins that, by 1980, were no longer being manufactured. You could purchase a new Volare in 1976 for the low, low price of $72 a month from Harrison's Chrysler Plymouth on Rossville Boulevard.
Imported autos were available — Honda Civics were still a novelty — but hadn't quite hit their stride, and most local dealerships were still family-owned businesses, not part of auto chains as many are today. The principal dealers in town were often semi-celebrities, their names made famous locally through print, broadcast and billboard advertisements.
That's what makes the rather ordinary group photo that accompanies this article interesting to people of a certain age. The photo, part of the archives at ChattanoogaHistory.com, represents nearly the entire population of Chattanooga-area car dealers from 1976. The group had gathered for the photograph to promote an annual car show at Eastgate Center in Brainerd, which was designed to introduce automobiles from the new model year to the general public.
Launched by history enthusiast Sam Hall in 2014, ChattanoogaHistory.com is maintained to present historical images in the highest resolution available. If you have photo negatives, glass plate negatives or original nondigital prints taken in the Chattanooga area, contact Sam Hall for information on how they may qualify to be digitized and preserved at no charge.
Back in the day, the introduction of new models was a big deal as manufacturers were much more likely to change designs from year to year. Today, most car and truck models are significantly redesigned only once every four or five years.
Built in 1962, Eastgate Center — later called Eastgate Mall — was at peak popularity by 1975 and was often the scene of public expos and fairs, such as the car show.
The car show represented by this photo was actually in November 1975, previewing 1976 models that had already reached dealer lots. According to the newspaper ads, 150 cars and trucks were gathered for the show, which was open for a full week and free to the public.
Car executives in the accompanying photo:
Front row, from left: Ed Wright of Ed Wright Chevrolet, Buzz Standefer of Standefer Motors, Joe Burcham of Burcham Motors, Austin Watson of Forrest Cate Ford, Pat Ogle (executive director of the Eastgate Merchants Association), Earl Gregory of Gregory Datsun, Wayne Hughie of Capital Motors and Doc Gilbert of Doc Gilbert Volvo.
Second row, from left: D. Wayne Smith and H.D. Morris of Downtown Dodge, Lucky Smith of Smith-Owens Motors, Okey Harrison of Harrison Chrysler-Plymouth, Tom Prestwood of Lawrence-Doster Motors, Ed Kirby of Adcox-Kirby Chevrolet and Nelson Bowers of Doc Gilbert Volvo.
Third row, from left: Pete Austin of Austin Motors, Mitchell Howard of Kelly Cadillac, Jim Gardner of Ken Gardner Ford, Mike Hailey of Hailey Porsche-Audi, Leon Babb of Bert Brown Ford, Harold Morris of Don Wood Volkswagen and Melvin Smith of Economy Cars.
"Twenty-three new-car dealers will be represented at the show so the public can see new cars and compare features and prices," Buddy Houts, the then-auto editor of the Chattanooga News-Free Press, wrote of the 10th annual car show. "The annual event is the only time all the various cars are assembled under one roof."
See other installments of this series at ChattanoogaHistory.com or visit the public group on Facebook.