A Hole the Size of a Buick

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, December 4, 2008

After 88 years of selling Buicks in Northern Virginia's exurbs, the Dick C. Weaver & Son dealership sold its remaining cars, parts and tools back to General Motors this fall.

Someday soon, bailout or not, GM is likely to start severing its ties to hundreds of dealerships, as the old American system of selling cars through locally owned showrooms collapses. At Dick Weaver in Culpeper, the owners figured this was the time to get out, while they could still get some cash back from Detroit.

Buicks just weren't selling, with business down by more than 50 percent from last year, says Roger Suter, a co-owner and manager of the dealership, which remains open on Main Street as an independent service, parts and used-car facility. The Buick line was down to a couple of models, "and they had pretty much nothing on the drawing boards," Suter says.

Older customers had concluded that GM cars were pretty much all the same, even if they carried different brand names, and younger people, "well, they didn't even look at the American cars," Suter says.

In an economy in which the story for more than 20 years has been big national chains elbowing out the little local guy, car dealers are one of the last remaining homegrown businesses that form the core of a local community.

In Culpeper, where the Pontiac and GMC truck dealer closed a few years ago, the loss of Weaver's Buick franchise means that the high school sports teams and the Little League will find it harder to find sponsors, and the 4-H club and the agricultural classes will have to scout around for other sources of philanthropy.

"You're going to see this play out with all kinds of civic groups that we and other car dealers like to support," Suter says.

Across Virginia this year, 20 dealerships have closed, according to the Virginia Automobile Dealers Association. In the previous decade, only one shut down. "It's a scary time for dealerships," says Michael Allen, spokesman for the association.

Dealers are laying off employees, trimming advertising budgets and trying to envision a future that might not include one or more of the Big Three automakers -- and might include a far smaller role for local dealers.

Statewide, the number of domestic cars sold in October was 8,939, a sharp drop from the 10,891 sold in the same month in 2007. The November numbers are expected to be much worse. Sales of foreign brands are down, too, though less dramatically.

In the Washington suburbs, the customer preference for foreign makes is palpable: In October, in Loudoun County, sales of domestics dropped from 403 last year to 267 this year, whereas sales of foreign brands increased slightly year to year, from 892 to 898.

Although many local dealers are busy this week lobbying for a congressional bailout, Suter is not so sure it makes sense to pump billions into companies that were failing to meet consumers' needs even before the economy went south. "I have mixed emotions," he says. "GM, Chrysler and Ford have a lot of unwise expenditures. For example, GM was paying Tiger Woods $7 million a year" to endorse its cars, a deal the company scotched last week. "Nothing against Tiger Woods, but he didn't sell any Buicks for us."

Even with revised union contracts and a new commitment to more-energy-efficient cars, Suter says, it would be unrealistic to think that GM could win back American car buyers, "even in the next eight to 10 years."

All things being equal, I like the idea of owning an American car, but I've never done it (in three decades, I've bought seven vehicles: four Japanese, two German and one French.) I'm the classic consumer who checks out the domestic offerings and finds them lacking.

(Most recently, when I looked at a Ford at a dealership in Prince George's County, the salesman whistled at the huge expanse of rust on the engine of a brand-new car on his lot. "It doesn't affect how it drives," he offered weakly.)

When Suter, who has been selling cars for 42 years, thinks about how American automakers let their reputation for quality fade, the prospect of a bailout makes little sense. But when he recalls that cars account for more than 20 percent of all retail sales in Virginia and that huge numbers of service, parts and other businesses rely heavily on the auto industry, he wonders whether we can afford to let the Big Three fail.

In the end, though, the fact that there are car dealers who are not totally on board for a bailout speaks volumes.

The bosses at the Big Three are still playing the taxpayers for fools: Look at us, we're driving to Washington this time!

Despite promises of reform, does anyone really believe that the same executives who are still churning out gas-guzzling SUVs will compete effectively with Honda and Toyota?

Whatever happens to the Big Three, Americans will still buy cars, and the auto-based economy will still benefit from those sales. But as the government showers businesses with unfathomable sums of money to keep them from collapsing, isn't it worthwhile to ask whether that money is standing in the way of innovation and creativity?

If the car companies were faring poorly before the recession hit, might it not be better to let others come along to reinvent the industry, without the burdens that weigh on the Big Three?

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