The year 1953 saw Dwight Eisenhower become president, Burt Lancaster star in “From Here to Eternity” and Don Hillbrant buy a new Buick Super automobile.
Hillbrant is still at it.
The Iola, Kan., resident has owned nothing but General Motors vehicles. A dozen of them over the years. Some Buicks, Chevrolet pickups and a Cadillac De Ville.
The 84-year-old recently decided that at his age and with a couple of heart surgeries behind him, he had one more new car left in him.
And he did it with a splash. At the Kansas City, Kan., Fairfax plant on Tuesday, he rode off the assembly line in his new Buick LaCrosse, complete with a red paint job, leather interior, Bose sound system and plenty of other options.
He figured his last car wasn’t the time to go cheap. The price came to more than $40,000.
“I’m going to get the last drop in the wine glass,” he said. “It’s the cat’s meow.”
Hillbrant’s big day was set up when GM learned of his devotion to its vehicles and invited him to visit the plant to see the finishing touches put on his car.
GM vehicles have been a constant for most of Hillbrant’s life, which began when he was born on a table in Iola, 100 miles southwest of Kansas City. His family owned a farm, and he received his formal education in a one-room schoolhouse out in the country. He later went to high school in Iola, where he was teased as a poor farmer.
By the time he was 23, he was farming and wanted a car. He sold some pigs for the down payment and took out a loan to pay for a two-door Buick Super with light blue paint and blue leather seats. The midprice Super was considered just a notch below the fancier Roadmaster.
“I loved that car, and everyone in Iola knew who owned it,” he said.
Hillbrant’s life took a big turn when he went to Evangel University in Springfield and got a bachelor’s degree in education, then to Drury University for a master’s. He snagged a job at MacArthur Elementary School at Fort Leavenworth, where he taught science for 36 years.
He spent summers in Latin America to help build schools, and after retiring from MacArthur, he became a substitute teacher, including at schools in Iola and Humboldt. On Monday, he taught a physical education class and taught some basketball fundamentals.
“He’s a remarkable individual,” said K.B. Chriss, superintendent of schools. “He’s all about the kids.”
Along the way, there were the GM vehicles. The red 1960 Buick LeSabre, the 1967 Buick Riviera and a GMC Sierra pickup were favorites along with that Buick Super. His last car before the new Buick LaCrosse, a 2001 Cadillac De Ville, is still running after more than 200,000 miles.
Hillbrant didn’t lose faith in GM even as it lost customers and went bankrupt in 2009.
“I knew GM would come through. I believed in them,” he said.
Such loyalty is increasingly rare, marketing experts say, especially with consumers now having more choices.
“It has become more unusual as the market has become more competitive,” said Kevin Gwinner, a professor of marketing at Kansas State University.
In fact, Hillbrant briefly toyed with buying a Toyota Camry Hybrid because of its top rating by Consumer Reports, which he follows when making other purchases. But he decided the Buick LaCrosse was still the best for him.
The route to the Fairfax plant on Tuesday began a few weeks ago when he decided his last car could be a learning experience for his students by seeing how it was built. He called GM, but his plan didn’t work out, although he will still be taking the students on a tour of the plant before Christmas.
But his call triggered inquiries to senior plant managers about inviting him to the plant the day his car was built.
“It’s unusual, but I said, ‘Absolutely,’” said Dave Carter, assistant plant manager at the Kansas City, Kan., plant. “It’s pretty cool.”
Hillbrant arrived alone Tuesday, but that didn’t last for long. More than 30 employees gathered around the end of the assembly line to greet him.
“Thank you so much for everything,” said George Ruiz, president of United Auto Workers Local 31, which represents the plant’s workers.
It takes 17.1 hours to build a car at the plant. The employees applauded as a misty-eyed Hillbrant got into the “crystal red” Buick LaCrosse with its “cashmere leather” interior and rode along as it went through final testing before it was shipped to Robert Brogden Buick GMC, the Olathe dealer where he bought the car.
“I love it, I love it,” he said of the car. “Take good care of it.”
Several minutes later, he sat down to size up the morning and more.
“Anybody with any brains knows that someday my number’s up,” he said. “But it’s been a wonderful life.”