Editor’s note: An occasional series on the people who have helped build Manteca as the city gets ready to celebrate the 100th anniversary of incorporation this year.
By DENNIS WYATT
The year the City of Manteca turned 50, Johnny Umipeg sold his first new Ford. It was a 1969 Ford TLD sedan with a base sticker price of $3,110 complete with cutting edge retractable headlight covers that his customer drove off the lot at 555 North Main Street.
Now — a half a century later — Manteca is turning 100 years old and Umipeg is still selling Fords at the same dealership he started at in late 1968, a year after returning from the Vietnam War.
“The LTD was a big car,” Umipeg recalled.
His first year in car sales was when you could buy a basic Ford Pinto new for $1,298 and pickup trucks were cheaper than cars.
Umipeg not only enjoys repeat customers — some have purchased a dozen or more vehicles from him — but in more than a few cases he’s sold cars to the children and grandchildren of people that bought vehicles from him early in his career.
He’s stayed with selling cars because of the people. Not only does he enjoy getting to know them and chatting with them, but he thoroughly enjoys being able to share in their happiness when he turns over the keys.
“People like Johnny,” said fellow Manteca Ford salesman Bill Quinton who has been in the business 22 years. “You wouldn’t buy a car from someone you don’t like.”
Quinton related how people will often drop by the showroom when bringing their car in for service and ask for Umipeg. And while Umipeg has the biggest “fan base” given his five decades with Manteca Ford, it isn’t usual for others who have bought cars from Manteca Ford to stop by and chat with their salesman.
Umipeg, a 1963 Manteca High graduate, got into car selling on the strength of a business class assignment at Delta College where he enrolled after completing four years in the Air Force in Southeast Asia.
The assignment was for students to “sell” an item to the rest of the class by preparing a sales pitch. The item that Umipeg picked for the mock sale was his Corvette.
He got an “A” prompting his uncle Delbert Thompson to suggest he apply for a salesman job at Knapp Ford. Umipeg decided to give it a try. That’s when Jim Leatherwood was the sales manager. Now, almost 50 years later, he’s still at it selling cars at the same dealership now owned by Phil Waterford. Manteca Ford traces its roots back to the 1910s when the Piccinni family that later founded Save Mart Supermarkets launched a Ford dealership on West Yosemite Avenue just east of downtown.
“Cars have changed a lot,” Umipeg said of the last 50 years. “The biggest change is all the technology. . . You used to be able to have a choice of just a few colors and five or six models.”
Umipeg’s first car was a 1953 DeSoto. When he moved to Manteca from Stockton in time for his senior year, Umipeg came part of the cruise tradition.
“We’d go from Foster Freeze to Ed’s Patio (where Johnny’s Restaurant is today) up and down Yosemite,” Umipeg recalled.
Umipeg remembered one time getting drunk. The legendary Manteca Police officer Tillie Del Nero who watched the cruise like a hawk pulled him over. Instead of arresting him, Del Nero drove him home.
Del Nero’s likeness is a part of the Cruising mural gracing the side of Accent Carpets in the 100 block of North Main where he is depicted standing near the El Rey Theatre watching the cruise.
Manteca Ford owner Phil Waterford has attributed part of the dealer’s long-term success to Umipeg’s salesmanship and building solid relationships with customers.
Umipeg has sold vehicles in a day and his biggest weekend was closing deals on seven vehicles.
Besides enjoying what he does, Umipeg said owners like Knapp and Waterford who treat customers and employees fairly as well as the fact Manteca Ford is more like a family than simply a workplace has made staying out an easy choice.
Quinton noted employees with a decade or two working at Manteca Ford is more the norm than the exception. As an example, he pointed out general sales manager Jeff Houghton has been with Manteca Ford for 20 years while Phil Waterford Jr. has been in sales for 14 years.
“I’ve been with other dealerships but Manteca Ford is by far the best to work for,” Quinton said.
Umipeg is extensively involved with the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 6311. He is the kitchen manager and oversees Tuesday Tacos and Friday morning breakfasts. He help also institute monthly country online dancing. All three events help raise funds to cover the post ongoing monthly expenses for the post home on Moffat Boulevard.