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Anxiety marks aftermath

Industry grapples to keep its footing

It is anything but business as usual.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, automakers, suppliers and dealers tried to adapt to new ground rules.

Travel plans changed and executives stayed put. Wolfgang Reitzle, chairman of Ford Motor Co.'s Premier Automotive Group, is one of the industry's most traveled executives. But Reitzle was in Premier Automotive's London office in a videoconference that lasted until midnight one night last week because he wouldn't fly to Detroit for a monthly meeting.

From Tysons Corner, Va., across the heartland to Cerritos, Calif., dealer showrooms were deserted, and dealership employees worried about paying their bills.

Some automakers went to great lengths to lure customers back to the showroom, including Ford and General Motors, which announced hefty new retail incentives.

There also were random acts of kindness and understanding. The Big 3 waived the penalties that suppliers normally pay when parts are shipped late to factories, and the Chrysler group dropped its sales quotas for dealers.

Everywhere, uncertainty about the future - including the likelihood of prolonged military action and a sharper economic downturn - kept Americans from thinking about buying cars and trucks - at least for the short term.

You can reach Edward Lapham at elapham@crain.com

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