50 Years Ago: Rez known for sales of pickups

The Navajo Reservation has become famous, sort of.

The American Automobile Association released a report saying more pickups have been sold in this area than anywhere else in the United States.

Yes, the Navajo Reservation is the pickup capital of the world.

A lot of the credit for this went to Claire Gurley, the owner of Gurley Motors in Gallup, who once said 70% of the vehicles sold on the reservation were Ford pickups and most were sold by him.

It was obvious that a pickup would be the car of choice for the reservation given the lifestyle of most Navajos, but as more and more Navajos got salaried jobs, the demand for pickups seemed to increase as well.

And Gurley Motors seemed to be the dealer of choice for most Navajo families and there was a simple reason for this – Gurley provided his own financing.

Only a small percentage of Navajos had checking accounts in 1970 and most had no credit history so banks were reluctant to give out car loans. Gurley knew this and realized that in-house financing would give him a major leg up when it came to financing a car.

Gurley had been in business for more than two decades and would say he understood the Navajo people and thought the great majority were hard working people who were responsible for their debts.

He also understood one other thing: For most Navajos, their car was their most expensive possession.

That wasn’t true of non-Navajos who lived in cities. Their most prized possession was their home. Even people who rented apartments paid more in rental payments than for their car.

But for most Navajos, their car payment was their biggest monthly expense.

Yes, they had homes on the reservation but these were mortgage free because the house or hogan was located on tribal trust lands and no bank would provide someone a mortgage if they did not own the land.

So Gurley was comfortable in giving out car loans knowing that having your car repossessed on the reservation created a major hardship.

It also made good business sense since most of the time he made more money from the interest payments than he did from the sale of the car itself.

But ironically, it was not a Ford that holds the honor of being the first one sold on the reservation. No, that honor goes to a Dodge.

Chee Dodge, the first chairman of the Navajo Tribe, is said to have bought the first car on the reservation and, of course, it had to be a Dodge.

The Dodge Company may have given him a deal in an effort to promote their cars but if they did that was not a factor to Chee Dodge, who was reported to have been the most wealthy Navajo of his time.

While owning a car was prestigious, it would turn out to be a major headache given the fact that back in the 30s and 40s roads were nothing more than ruts in the ground.

Chee Dodge soon had a lot of stories about getting stuck in a ditch or in mud and having to search for a nearby rancher to bring horses to get his car back on the road.

He told one story of getting stuck in a ditch on his way to Chinle and having to spend the night in his car. That was a night, he would say later, when he almost decided to trade in his car for a horse and wagon.

But he never gave up on his car and every time a new model came out, he would be one of the first to have it.

One final car story.

Back in the late 70s or early 80s, the Navajo Nation decided to do something about all of the illegal dumps on the reservation. There were hundreds of them and the tribe decided they wanted to clean up the worst.

They got funding from somewhere and picked five or six of the worst dumps. These were ones that had been used for decades and had tons of garbage that had to be picked up and carted away.

One of the worst was near the Window Rock fairgrounds. A crew was there for almost two weeks cleaning it out. After removing tons of debris, old sinks and whatever, they finally got to the bottom and found a complete car that had been driven or pushed into the ditch.

It was a ‘46 Dodge.

There was a lot of speculation that it may have belonged to Chee Dodge but nothing was ever proven, as far as I can remember.

As far as the car itself, I think it was taken to the dump or someone may have taken possession with plans to restore it.

I always thought it should have been turned over to the tribal museum as a relic from the past or as a message about illegal dumping.

About The Author

Bill Donovan

Bill Donovan has been writing about the Navajo Nation government since 1971 and for the Navajo Times since 1976. He is currently semi-retired and is living in Torrance, California, and continues to report for the Navajo Times.


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