Sympathy for the Car Dealers?

by Tom Bozzo

A Washington Post article suggests that car dealers may be getting a bit more sympathy than other stakeholders in the GM and Chrysler bankruptcy adventures:

The dealer complaints have resonated in a way that the objections of bondholders and others have not. Many are leaders in their local communities, where they are a source of jobs and philanthropic dollars, and they are a potential political force for disrupting the Obama administration’s effort to quickly restructure the nation’s ailing auto giants.

(It also notes that it takes in substantial advertising revenues from Jack Fitzgerald, a Washington-area dealer profiled in the article.)

As Gail Collins says in a different context, “Hell hath no fury like a middleman scorned.”

I probably shouldn’t underestimate Congress’s inclination to protect those undeserving of protection, but remember these are car salesmen, fer goodness sakes. If you wouldn’t bail Joe Carsalesman out from the jaws of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal, then with respect to John Cardealer, keep in mind that the Cossacks work for the Czar.

While Fitzgerald suggests he’s been targeted for criticizing GM and Chrysler for weak product, it’s worth remembering that dealers have played their own role in the decline of the Domestic Three. And a central irony is that the terminated dealers’ biggest problems stem in no small part from dealer-friendly state franchise laws that among other things helped shield these dealers from certain forms of competition. More below the jump.

For instance, terminated dealers in Wisconsin are subject to state laws which prohibit them from selling “new” cars without a franchise agreement; absent an ad hoc reprieve from the state, they’d be forced to hold onto unsold inventory until the model-year turnover when they could legally sell the cars as “used.” This is a particularly pressing issue for Chrysler dealers as their termination date is June 9. Now who do you suppose would (ordinarily) want to keep non-franchisees from selling “new” cars? Pick a state and you can almost certainly find franchise laws intended to insulate car dealers from competition but which may boomerang on dealers ejected from the club.

Dealers also shoulder some of the blame for the current market’s coolness to the Detroit automakers. Those of us of an age to remember family loyalties to particular domestic makes may also remember that their automotive nadir was also a dealer-service nadir. GM, in particular, implicitly acknowledged this through the Saturn dealership model, with its customer service aspirations styled on Japanese makes and low-pressure sales approach. That must have done a pretty good job of reforming widely detested sales practices and lousy after-sales service, since it’s hard to pin Saturn’s goodwill and modest early success on its cars. (My receptiveness to “oh but early Saturns really were wonderful” arguments is tempered by 2-1/2 years of living with my wife’s late ’96 SL1, which admittedly wasn’t remotely as bad as my mother’s long-deceased ’85 Buick [the car which drove her to Hondas].)

It’s been a measure of how screwed-up GM is that Saturn now has a sensible lineup of decent cars (which could be further improved by reference to GM’s latest European models) and the closest thing to a rationalized dealer network in the GM brand family, yet seems never to had the chance afforded GM’s more damaged traditional brands that had, pre-crisis, much lower sales to boot.

We’re encouraged to feel a little sympathy for small businessmen whose lots were stuffed with cars using what sound like high-pressure sales tactics. Some of the reported sales methods sound like they’re somewhere between ‘bullshit promises‘ and mild deception. Then again, it’s car dealers on the other end of the transactions. Should they not be able to resist pitches of the “I gotta meet my quota and we’ll remember you for helping” form?

My problem with “travesty” theories of the Chrysler and GM bankruptcies is that they tend to lose sight of the basic situation that the automakers are well and truly busted, and that the next best alternative to the “travesty” is liquidation in a highly unfavorable market. There’s especially little reason to believe that New Chrysler has a future with all of its legacy franchise agreements dragged along.