My dad was a small town Ford dealer (Council Bluffs, IA). Dad was fortunate enough to have a very rich mentor that put him into the dealer development program when I wasn’t even walking and so we moved to what I still believe is the middle of no where and put down roots. I don’t know if you’ve got much experience in a small town, but the local car dealers are actually pretty big businesses for them. My dad headed up blood drives and the United Way. He belonged to the Chamber of Commerce. When Dad was younger he volunteered for everything. As he got older, he wrote a lot of checks. He helped my Mom establish a Victorian house museum that still is world-renown. He always bought tons of tickets to the college world series to hand out to every one who walked in the door. He sponsored little league teams and bought advertising in the local newspapers and TV stations. His 50-100 employees were with dad for as long as I can remember. Not only the mechanics and the office folks stayed with Dad, but also the car salesmen. They were my family too. When dad retired in the 1980s after surviving those horrible energy crisis years, I came to look back on how central the car business is to small town America. Actually, Dad also sold a lot of trucks because we lived in farm country.
I’m thinking more and more about this as well as having a lot of discussions with Dad on the unwinding of the great American car companies. In a way, it feels like the unwinding of small America cities and a way of living. Chrysler and GM are dumping dealers all over the country. Most of the surviving dealerships are not going to look like the way dealerships developed when cars and the car industry were the most American of all business. I’m sure it’s going to be much more efficient and I am certain that each of the US automakers over franchised, but still, there is something about a small town car dealership that is not going to be replaceable. In many towns, it is one of the biggest employers and also a huge source of charitable donations.
It is odd that the first two articles that grabbed me this morning as I drunk my coffee were two contrasting views on the wind down of Chrysler. The first one was all about the finance and the bankruptcy and is on Salon. It’s called “Who is Screwing with the bankruptcy laws”. The second was on the front page of the business section of the NY Times. It goes to directly to the heart of the dealer closings and is entitled “Chrysler Francisees Make Case Against Closure”. Both show exactly how ugly the Chrysler bankruptcy has become.