Jim Bonnema says the typical Americans does not want a little car -- and Bonnema should know. After all, he has been selling Chryslers to the God-fearing, well-heeled, narrow-minded, good hearted, Dutch-derive inhabitants of East Grand Rapids, Mich., for years.
But by the end of this year Chrysler will be totally committed to making small cars and although Bonnema is far too good a salesman to admit, I think he is frightened that America's answer to British Leyland has got it wrong again.
Grand Rapids is Michigan's second city, about 130 miles west of Detroit and at what might be called the blunt end of the car capital's recession.
I don't know how Americans have come to use "spaced-out" as a description of drug experience. West Michigan is green, indulating country, but the natural contours are ruthlessly submerged under Grand Rapids' grid of roads and super highways. If the city had been built before the combustion engine, it would spiral up the hills edging the Grand River like any self-respecting old European town. Instead it sprawls flatly out, like an ants' nest under glass, it criss-crossed passages crawling with cars at a sedate 55 mph.
Most of the city's shops have deserted the center -- downtown Grand Rapids -- for "malls" on the edges, covered carpeted air-conditioned centers full of tasteless food and clothes. If you want cheap goods you drive to "Thrifty Acres" supermarket and if you want cars you motor to the interstate highways, line with gas stations and autmobile salesrooms as far as the car can travel.
The big question is whose cars. Reading the American papers is like being in England. Imports are up to 28 percent and could top 30 percent for the year. The American car makers are pleading with the government for protection now. Prices for home-produced monsters are being cut to the bone. Appeals are made to patriotism. "Built by Americans like you," says Bonnema's employer, Highland Chrysler, in the Grand Rapids Press.
Highlands has been having a terrible time. "I date it from the departure of the shah. That created a fuel shortage in the U.S., only a marginal deficit, but enough to produce shortages at the pumps. For a time '79 looked like a replay of '74, when Americans did not believe cuts were coming because they hadn't in the past.
"But this time they look it on board. What's the fuel price now? $1.40 a gallon? It was 55 cents a year ago. And now no one believes it's going to get cheaper."
Chrysler's troubles have been worse than that, though. Last December, when the ailing car giant was appealing for $1.5 billion in government aid sales collapsed. For three weeks before Christmas, even the little Horizon, virtually identical to the British model, only trickled out. No One wanted to buy a loser.
Business picked up in the first quarter of this year, but Highland's problems were only just beginning.
"April just died" says Bonnema. The trouble was not just big cars. Interest rates went up to a base rate of 20 percent. "We'd never been there before. American car buyers are used to time payments costing 10 to 12 percent. Now they were being asked to pay 30, 40 percent." So they didn't buy and instead Highland paid.
"We've had $2 million of automobiles in the back lot and we've had to pay interest on that every day." A businessman's pain lances through Bonnema's flat accents.
"When Chryslers turns a car over to the trucking company that delivers to us, we have to pay cash. It might take a week for the car to reach us and we're quite close. We had a car a couple for years ago that went to Florida by mistake and we still had to pay up front."
On top of its selling problems, Bonnema's company was hit by higher social security charges on its wage bill, a state small business tax, a doubled heating bill last year and wage increases for its skilled mechanics in line with inflation.
If it wasn't fairly large it would be in real trouble. Highland was started in 1946, selling Chrysler's first postwar DeSotos, made with wooden bumpers because of steel shortages.
Last year, the company sold 1,200 new cars and 800 second-hand ones, plus another 350 on leasing deals. That put it ninth in Chrysler's U.S. wide leasing league, but down from third the year before when it leased 460.
Trouble with leasing is the guaranteed buy-back price. With the slump in big-car prices, this has become a minefield for leasing companies. Highland doesn't least big cars any more. "We want to stay in business," Bonnema says drily.
But he is certain that the American public will continue to buy cars. You have only to glance at Grand Rapids to see that. It's not just in the major cities that the United States is a car culture.
I regret to have to inform you that perhaps British Leyland is right to stop making MG's Judging by Dave Roberts, it should pack in TR7s as well.
Robert is the local agent for MG and Triumph in Wyoming, a few miles down Michigan's Rt. 28 from Grand Rapids. Every time he mentions either. British car he laughs.
Sales are just kind of terrible. We're moving the odd MG with a $750 rebate, but we can't give TRs away even with a $900 package of extras and a $1,000 rebate."
Don't people like the cars? What's all this we've been hearing about Americans loving British sports car?
"Gee, they love the cars if they would only hold together." He laughs again, slightly hysterically. "It's a nightmare. I've told my salesman to warn customers who insist on buying them that they are going to be in for some extra trouble."
"What I don't understand is why they don't put things right. I've been complaining to MG. for 10 years about the way the piston in the fuel pump sticks." Roberts spreads his hands. "You'd think they put them right but they never change them.
"Lately it's been amplifiers. Do you know a firm called Lucas? We don't think very highly of Lucas over here. They say they make things differently for the U.S. market." Once again Roberts laughs, this time ironically.
"I don't get it. They had the market cornered in sports cars but the things fall apart. People here like a car that will go more than three blocks without breaking down. They've got charisma but . . . just to think that six years ago I was thinking of dumping my Datsun agency. . . ."
If the message that quality counts needs rubbing in any further, there is a company called London Motors Limited, based in Detroit, which is selling 300 MGs a year at $10,879 each, compared to the total of 40 English cars that Dave Roberts is turning over.
London Motors has a shop in Detroit's new Renasissance Center, fronting the revitalizing riverside and its insolently self-confident salesman says he has no trouble is selling everyone he can get.
But this MG is not British. It is a Detroit-built copy of the classic prewar TD model with a Volkswagen engine and a Union Jack where the MG symbol should be. "British styling, German engineering," reads the sales literature. What more is there to say?