BY PETER JONES
Classic models: Standing behind a new Corvette, A.J. Guanella and Bill Benton have worked at the Chevrolet dealership on South Broadway—first Burt and now John Elway—for a collective 120 years. Photo by Peter Jones
After 53 years of selling Chevys on South Broadway, Bill Benton must be doing something right.
“I wasn’t sure that I was cut out for a sales job, but it worked out alright,” he said stoically.
At last count, Benton, who turns 89 this week, had moved 24,749 vehicles off the lot as a salesman and courtesy deliverer—and the veteran employee of what is now John Elway Chevrolet in Englewood is showing no signs of shifting down.
“I like the car business,” the award-winning salesman explained with a shrug. “I like the people that I meet. They’re always excited—they get a new car.”
Benton would never have predicted he would still be working the same job a half century after reluctantly giving it a test drive on July 1, 1964. His life might have easily been spent at sea if he had been called back to the Navy after his three-year stint. He could have happily spent his career down the street at Bear Frame & Axle if he had not made connections at the Junior Chamber of Commerce, or Jaycees as they were known.
“The plan was to be successful, raise a family and do things for other people,” he said, noting his longtime association with Englewood’s Sertoma club.
Born in Denver in 1928, Benton was raised in the historic Curtis Park neighborhood—but before readers picture a stately Victorian mansion, Benton is quick to clarify.
“It wasn’t one of those. It was an old brick house. It’s been torn down,” he said. “The neighborhood was thriving then, and then it went downhill—and then it came back.”
Two months after graduating from Manual High School in 1946, Benton joined the Navy, spending much of his hitch “chasing the admiral” around Guam as a photographer.
“It was a jungle, but it was nice,” he said. “It was hot and muggy most of the time.”
Back stateside, Benton worked up a sweat alongside his older brother pulling spark plugs and pushing paper at Bear Frame & Axle and moonlighting as a wedding photographer. Snapping photos would be short-lived, however, since most weddings were on Saturday and Benton’s destiny had other plans for that biggest day of the week for auto sales.
Bill Benton makes The Englewood Herald in 1963, the year before he landed his job at Burt Chevrolet through the Englewood Jaycees. Courtesy of Bill Benton
At 36, he grudgingly accepted the job at what was then Burt Chevrolet. Like most newbies, he got his start walking the lot, and he says he tried to be as affable as possible.
“You don’t sell cars to your enemies. You got to make friends,” he said. “I don’t think it was high pressure. We had the product and we were the largest commercial dealer in the beginning.”
At the time, Burt was the only dealership on Broadway south of Belleview Avenue, an area now littered by a long stretch of high-profile car lots. Benton says the Ford dealer came in after “Mr. Burt” sold the necessary land to his soon-to-be competitor.
“He figured out, if they’re going to buy a Ford, they’ve got to drive by a Chevy dealer before they get to the Ford dealer,” Benton said.
Although Burt’s oldest employee has since moved off the lot into fleet sales and delivery, he still sells the occasional individual vehicle, mostly to his decades of existing contacts.
“Occasionally—if they’re still alive,” he clarified.
Despite a diminishing list of contemporaries, retirement is not an option for this consummate worker. The widower recalls how his wife used to acerbically keep that ethic intact.
“We used to joke about that,” Benton said. “My wife said, ‘If you think you’re going to hang around here retired, I’ll find you another job.’”
Benton’s durable career has even survived the retirement of his 60-year-old daughter.
“At her retirement party, I said, ‘Cindy, something’s wrong with this deal,’” he said.
The near-nonagenarian attributes his longevity to work. Although living with type 2 diabetes, he says he is mostly in good health, having survived the rest of his family. He is also thankful that the Elway partner who oversees the location has no inclination toward age discrimination.
“I guess there’s not many people at 89 years old still working—and the company still wants them,” Benton said. “Todd Maul says, “You’re here as long as you want to be here.’ That’s a nice feeling.”
In Benton’s world, that can mean only one thing.
“I guess the answer is I’m out of here headfirst,” he said.
A.J. Guanella, right, accepts a 1990 national sales award from Jim Perkins of Chevrolet. Courtesy of A.J. Guanella
A.J. Guanella has worked at the Chevrolet dealership on South Broadway since Harry Truman was in the White House—and most of his colleagues were not even gleams in their parents’ eyes in 1950 when 16-year-old Guanella first clocked in.
“I wore a tie every day from 1960 to about two years ago,” he recalled. “I used to tell the guys, ‘I got ties older than you.’ Nobody wears ties anymore.”
More than the salesman’s dress code has changed in the 67 years since Guanella first put a washcloth on a ’49 Chevy. The 84-year-old veteran of the car wars has survived two locations, three ownership groups and various rev-ups and stalls in the U.S. economy.
Other than a two-year Navy stint, Guanella has spent his entire professional career on the lots of Burt and John Elway Chevrolet in Englewood.
“I never minded working,” he said. “I worked in the parts department till 5 at night and I would go across the alley and work at the Conoco station till 9 o’clock. So, when I got into sales and worked night and day, that was no big deal.”
In nearly seven decades, Guanella has held virtually every job one can have at a car dealership, from washing and selling to managing employees, organizing charity events and meeting with industry bigwigs, including his employer namesake.
“I just kind of do everything,” he said, noting the lack of a title on his business card. “[Co-owner] Todd Maul calls me an ambassador.”
Raised in Englewood, Guanella was born Augustin Joseph Jr.—though he was always called A.J., especially around the dealership where his father, “Augie Sr.,” served as parts manager.
“When I wasn’t playing sports, he wanted to make sure I was doing something, so he got me the job washing cars,” Guanella said.
Unlike his progeny, Augie actually retired in the 1980s.
After graduating out of the car wash, Guanella worked under his father in parts and moved to tires before selling cars on the lot a decade into his tenure. The only stall on his rise up the company ladder was a little skirmish called the Korean War.
“They took everybody,” Guanella said. “I mean, you had to have polio.”
Back home, the only competition for cars were baseball and Guanella’s high school sweetheart—the latter of which won the battle when Guanella reluctantly turned down a baseball scholarship at what is now the University of Northern Colorado at Greeley.
“She was a young girl, very cute, good looking. So, when I came back on my leave from boot camp, we got married. I had a wife and I had a job. I’m kind of a realist,” he said.
Before long, the couple had four children as Guanella rose through the Burt Chevrolet organizational chart, creating new branches for himself along the way.
“I wanted to be so busy I couldn’t handle it,” he said.
In 1973, Guanella joined management, eventually collecting 15 percent ownership in Burt’s Chevy and Subaru dealerships.
He says he loved training young salesmen the art of selling a car.
“Just don’t wait on the man,” he would say. “Make it a presentation. Open the door for them. Let them sit inside. Let them smell the newness of that car.”
Guanella would always put his home number on his business card.
“I wanted people to call me. I didn’t care if they called me on Sunday,” he said.
Somewhere along the way, Guanella met an emerging Broncos quarterback named Elway through retired player Jerry Sturm, owner of The South restaurant in Englewood.
Elway and Guanella worked out a deal on a new car.
“In return, he would make appearances on our showroom floor once or twice a year,” the salesman said. “We just had a handshake—no contract, no nothing.”
Coincidently, Elway would buy the entire dealership in 2012 from then-owner Lloyd Chavez—picking up Guanella’s modest percentage as part of the pact.
“When my wife died, [Elway] called me,” he said. “He really doesn’t bug me very much.”
Like a collector, Guanella still keeps a card catalogue of every sale he has made over the decades, which he estimates at more than 3,000.
“I remember the first car I sold—a used ’53 Chevy. The man’s name was Bill Britton,” he said. “I read the obit every day. I know when I lose a customer. I lose a lot.”
Ultimately, Guanella has no plans to retire—he enjoys working too much.
“Whatever you’re doing, you’re trading a day in your life,” he said. “There’s a lot of truth there, isn’t there?”
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