Autowriters Spotlight: Don & Merle Norton

A&M Specialists should not slip quietly under a merger blanket without being recognized (indeed, thanked) for starting what has become an indispensable part of automotive journalism – full time, professional press fleet jockeys.

A&M Founder Don Morton

Don Morton

It began when a Detroit television personality, the late John Spears, was delivered a damaged press car to review. It sparked an idea that he took to Don Morton, former general manager of Hurst Performance and of Detroit Dragway, which he had helped build. They agreed on a plan and took it to Chrysler PR honcho Moon Mullins who gave it life by committing the Chrysler press fleet to their care in 1974.

For Mullins, innovative and always open to offsetting the larger budgets and staffs of his competitors, A&M was a way to save staff time and reduce the stress of getting vehicles to and from the media as promised and in A-1 shape. Don Morton had always been involved with specialty car design and development and that know-how was an important part of the service A&M offered. Vehicles were right when they left the premises.

Their first location was a forlorn, abandoned three-bay gas station on the edge of Detroit’s downtown, with four employees and a cadre of friends to help with long distance moves. Although they did do some work early on for Chrysler’s Marine division, the name stood for Automotive and Marine, mainly because Don liked the sound of the name and liked watercraft. The business grew and they re-located but, unfortunately, three years after they began, John Spears succumbed to cancer.

Later, in the 80’s, Don suffered a heart attack and his wife, Merle, left her post in HR at WDIV-TV in Detroit to take over the management of A&M. By the time it merged with Specialty Transport to form STI Fleet Specialists, A&M had 182 employees at 9 locations across the U.S. and more than a dozen competitors specializing in transporting new cars not only for the media but for special events and activities staged by the car companies.

Autowriters Spotlight: Merle Morton

Merle Morton

For the most part, Merle recalls, it has been a very straightforward business of moving vehicles from point a to point b and maintaining them in between. However, she recalls Don once waiting for a copy of a speech to be completed and then taking a plane late that evening to deliver it to Lee Iacocca’s hotel suite when Chrysler was seeking loan guarantees from the government. Another time he had to fly on a moment’s notice to Italy for the same purpose.

John, Don and Merle conceived and validated the concept of a press fleet management company and they, along with Mullins, deserve recognition and gratitude for doing so.