Senator George Norris’s snarky letter to an auto dealer

George Norris is remembered as both an influential US senator and a dignified, gentle man. But he could still go off on someone when he needed to.

George Norris, left, and Overland autos, right

George W. Norris of McCook (1861-1944) is remembered as one of the most influential US senators in American history, a dignified, idealistic leader that President Franklin Roosevelt once called “the very perfect, gentle knight of American progressive ideals.”

But this “perfect, gentle knight” could lay down some biting sarcasm when he felt he’d been sold a lemon. Sometime in the mid-1910s, Norris bought an Overland automobile, a popular brand in those days. By today’s standards, even the best cars of the 1910s would be considered unreliable, underpowered clunkers. Drivers of the era expected breakdowns and frequent repairs. It was simply part of being an “automobilist.” Norris was disappointed even by those standards.

On November 25, 1919, he wrote to the Harper Overland Company of Washington, D.C.:

Gentlemen: I have been very much interested in the extensive advertising campaign that you have been making of your new Overland Four, and I desire to suggest to you that in connection with this car which your advertising says has made such a record, that you advertise the car you sold me three or four years ago. . . .

It has run about three thousand miles. It has hardly been off of the pavement—but you would not need to say all this in the advertisement. You might say it has made its record over some rough roads, without saying anything about the fact that it has not been taken out of the District with one or two exceptions. The facts are, I have always been afraid to take it very far from home for fear I could not get back with it. A careful estimate of the expense I have been to for repairs, will show that it has cost just about a dollar a mile. The mileage of course, is small for the length of time I have had it, but this is explained by the fact that it has been in the repair shop most of the time.

In fact, I have had it nearly all rebuilt. It is a better car now than it was when I bought it, because while you represented to me that it had only run one hundred and seventy miles when I bought it, it would be easy to demonstrate that it had run a great many more than that and was practically worn out when you sold it to me for a new car but now, since it is rebuilt, I have hopes that it will eventually be of some service to me.

In a condensed way we could put all this on a bulletin board and hang it on the car, and put my car right by the side of the one you are now advertising in your show rooms. The facts are, my car looks better than the one you have there. It is a fine looker. It has never been used enough to wear off the gloss.

At the present time, it is not running. In a moment of enthusiasm, I induced my neighbor to come over this morning and help push it down the hill, with the hope that it would start by the time we got to the bottom. In this we failed, and it is standing now at the foot of the hill, so if you exhibited it you would have to go to the expense of getting a truck to haul it to your place of business. I will be glad to cooperate with you in any advertising plan that you may suggest in regard to my car, providing you confine yourselves within reasonable limits, to the truth. Very truly yours, G. W. Norris.

Postcard with two photos, labeled: "Overland sales 1911 Two; Over sales 1912 TEN. Are owners satisfied? ASK THEM."

Above: Overland auto dealership, probably near Friend, Nebraska, 1912. History Nebraska RG3021-8-6

Top: Detail of portrait of US Senator George W. Norris. History Nebraska RG3298-1-170


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