When Dick Blanken closed down his Ford dealership on Arlington's busy Wilson Boulevard last summer, it was snapped up by another veteran dealer, Curtis E. McCalip Jr., who thought he saw a bargain.
The site, at Wilson and 10th Street was reasonably close to the Metro Orange Line, and McCalip hoped to cash in on the subway connection, reasoning the new-car buyers and former customers would choose to have their cars serviced while they commuted to and from work by subway. "We know Blanken made a lot of money over here," McCalip said in an interview last year. It looked like a reasonable gamble to McCalip, the owner of Northeast Ford in Washington with 33 years experience in the business.
But McCalip couldn't make a success out of Arlington Ford and is closing the dealership. The parts and service departments were shut down a month ago; cars and equipment are being sold to other Ford dealers, and the staff of 40 has been pared to four or five.
"The front door is still open technically, but we hope to be out of there by the end of June," McCalip said. In the meantime, Ford Motor Co. is trying to find someone else to take over the location.
McCalip has been selling 80 to 90 new cars a month at his Northeast location on New York Avenue, but sold only one-third as many in Arlington.
The reasons for the failure in Virginia say some things about the perils of the auto business, the particular problems of Ford, and the risks of relying on a nearby Metro station to generate business -- at least in North Arlington.
The worst obstacle was the inability of the parts and service departments to pay their way at the Arlington location, McCalip said. Under Blanken, the agency had a strong reputation for service and a loyal clientele, but before McCalip could reopen the agency, Blanken's key parts and service people had left to work for a competing Ford dealer in Virginia.
"They took their business with them," McCalip said. The service department at the Arlington dealership was closed from June, when Blanken folded, until November, when McCalip reopened the business, and in that time too many customers shifted allegiances.
"It's like having the city tear up the street in front of your business," said one of McCalip's competitors. By the time the street is repaired, some customers have changed their habits and don't return.
A profitable parts and service operations is a crucial cash cushion against slow car sales -- it is a mainstay of McCalip's continuing Northeast Ford business. For car dealers, the need has rarely been greater, as they wait for the end of a long slump in car sales.
The wait has been particularly hard for McCalip and other Ford dealers as Ford's share of the domestic market has dipped from more than 23 percent of new-car sales in 1978 to a low of less than 16 percent this January. Even Ford truck sales have slumped. Caught in a cross fire between the new front-wheel drive cars produced by General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Corp., Ford dealers have needed hot products to draw potential customers into their showrooms.
The dealers say the Ford Escort subcompact and the new sports version that went on sale this spring have answered part of that need, but not all.
McCalip's gamble on the Arlington location wasn't a good one in light of continuing shifts in buying habits, another dealer said. Nighttime business is critical because so much car shopping is done after dinner, this dealer said. That gives the advantage to the dealer closest to affluent residential neighborhoods, and there McCalip's Arlington location is at a disadvantage.
He still believes that eventually the Metro will become a magnet for commercial redevelopment throughout Arlington. But with the domestic auto industry still struggling to right itself and interest rates gyrating upward again, McCalip can't wait. "We decided to take our lumps," he said.