Dr. Alan Ansher didn't think he was looking a huge struggle in the eye. His almost-new car had suffered a few scrapes on its passenger-side mirror. So this 33-year-old Bethesda gastroenterologist took the car to Dominion Nissan of Arlington, where he had bought it, for repairs.

Dr. Ansher dropped the car off at 7:30 one morning. When he returned to pick it up at about 6 p.m. that night, no one could find it. There was a search, then another. Finally, the dealership came to the inescapable conclusion: Dr. Ansher's car had been stolen, right off the lot.

Dr. Ansher's car was hardly your average box on four wheels. He describes it as "the things that dreams are made of," and well he might.

The car is a jet black Nissan 300-ZX. It has five-on-the-floor, every option in the book and a throaty engine that sounds as if it would be comfortable in Indianapolis next May. The price tag? As high as you might expect: $30,000.

Understandably, Dr. Ansher was upset over the disappearance of his car. Understandably, he told Dominion officials that since his car had only a few hundred miles on it, and since the theft was clearly the fault of the dealership, he wanted another new car identical to the one that had been stolen.

Dominion responded by denying liability, and by dumping the entire matter in the lap of its insurance company.

Dominion officials told the doctor that their insurance covers "negligence" on their grounds. Officials acknowledged that the car had been stolen because their personnel had left the keys in it. They acknowledged that they leave the keys in every car that's through with servicing and parked on the lot. Yet Dominion officials denied to Dr. Ansher that a system allowing a car to be driven away in broad daylight is negligent.

The dealership did provide Dr. Ansher with a loaner car. But when Larry Wise, the general manager, discovered that Dominion didn't have the appropriate insurance on the loaner car, he called Dr. Ansher the next day and demanded that it be returned. No replacement was offered or provided.

The story ends happily in one way. Dr. Ansher's car was found in Washington three days after the theft. It had a few "bumps and bruises," the doctor reports, and the thieves had the gall to throw out Dr. Ansher's soothing rock and roll tapes and replace them with rap. Still, the cost to fix the damage was estimated at $800, far less than it might have been.

However, Dominion told Dr. Ansher that the damage caused by the thieves is not covered under warranty. Dr. Ansher could submit an $800 claim to his own insurance company, but why should he jack up his own rates if the theft wasn't his fault?

So the doctor is having the car fixed elsewhere, and he is discussing the case with an attorney. He calls Dominion's efforts to dodge responsibility "amazing."

In a brief telephone conversation, Larry Wise told me that the theft of the car was an "unfortunate circumstance." But he declined to elaborate.

"I don't think that it's in good taste for me to discuss Dr. Ansher's private matter or ours," Larry said. The matter is "in the hands of the insurance company," he said. He declined to comment further.

I don't suffer from any such reluctance. I think Dominion should pony up the $800 to repair Dr. Ansher's car. There may not be an open-and-shut legal basis for that recommendation. But there is a clear business reason for it.

Like so many car dealerships, Dominion obviously doesn't believe its own propaganda. We want you as a customer forever, the ads imply. Yet this dealership has just treated Dr. Ansher as if it never expects or wants him to come back, as if it's a gypsy business selling to gypsy customers.

Dr. Ansher couldn't be a more well-rooted member of the community. He'll probably buy many more cars in the Washington area before he hangs up his stethoscope. Before this episode, he might have bought some of them (or all of them) from Dominion.

And he still might, if Dominion realizes that $800 spent now could lead to $80,000 spent by Dr. Ansher later.

After all, if Giant Food sells you a spoiled steak, and the spoilage occurred in their refrigerators, they'll replace the steak for free because they want you to come back. If C & P Telephone mistakenly charges you for a long-distance call, they'll make an adjustment because they don't want you skipping off to the waiting arms of MCI. If a Washington Post carrier throws your paper in a puddle, which is obviously the carrier's fault, you'll get a fresh, dry paper simply by asking for it because the Post wants to keep you as a subscriber.

Isn't there a lesson here? I'd say there is, if Dominion Nissan would only bother to learn it.


Our annual summer fund-raising drive ends today. I'll tally up the final numbers and report on the bottom line in a column early next week. In the meantime, many thanks to all contributors. As always, your generosity is wonderful, and greatly appreciated.