Longtime dealers say change is constant
But the store's president, Randall Zimmerman, says the only other constant over the past nine decades has been change. The dealership's relations with the factory and its customers both have undergone radical realignment.
Other dealers whose stores have been in business since the auto industry's infancy also identify major changes: shifting consumer tastes and loyalties, the explosion of factory sales incentives, and the decline of the Big 3 as they struggled with labor strife, import competition and shrinking market share.
Zimmerman calls his relationship with General Motors "pretty impersonal." He says he hasn't seen a factory sales representative in 15 years.
Today he communicates with the automaker via e-mail and the Internet. That saves time and money, and makes vehicle ordering more efficient, Zimmerman says. But he regrets losing personal contact with GM.
"Once in a while it was good to get a 'yes' or 'no' answer over the phone," Zimmerman told Automotive News.
John Brasington operates a Cadillac and Saab dealership in Gainesville, Fla. At 94, he's believed to be GM's longest-tenured dealer. Several of the brands he has sold since he joined the business at age 23 no longer exist: Plymouth, Oldsmobile, DeSoto.
Like Zimmerman, Brasington says he rarely sees a factory rep these days. He, too, is wistful about the detached relationships that modern technology has helped bring about.
"There's not as much trust in the car business as there used to be," Brasington says.
Detroit's decline caused many longtime Detroit 3 dealers to add import brands. They say they had no choice if they were to remain competitive.
The Dorschel Automotive Group in Rochester, N.Y., began as a Hudson and Studebaker dealership that opened in the 1940s. Now it sells a variety of import brands, including Toyota, Volkswagen and Kia. It also sells Chrysler group and GM vehicles.
Eric Pappert, the company's business manager, recalls the concern in the 1970s that putting a Toyota showroom near its display of Buicks would alienate buy-America consumers. Now he says he worries more about the Japanese juggernaut siphoning price-conscious customers from historic GM brands.
"It becomes less brand specific, and it becomes more, 'I bought it because it was cheap,' " Pappert says.
Henry Geise Jr. agrees. Until this year, he owned Geise Buick-Pontiac Co. in Quincy, Ill. His father opened the store as a Buick dealership in 1906 - two years before GM was created.
"There's no company loyalty today as far as the consumer is concerned," says Geise, 83. "And maybe the companies don't deserve it."
Geise sold his dealership this summer to Poage Auto Plaza Inc.
Longtime dealers agree that their encounters with customers are far different today as well. Consumers now come to showrooms armed with plenty of price and product information, often gleaned from the Internet - and a good dose of skepticism about the buying process, dealers say.
Colleen Kelleher owns Kelleher Motor Co., a Ford and Lincoln-Mercury dealership in Ellensburg, Wash. A former nurse, Kelleher, 79, took over the store after her husband, Joe, died in 1985.
Kelleher says her father-in-law, Jack Kelleher, founded the dealership in 1911. During the Depression, she says, he gave cars to customers who needed them, hoping for payment later. He never lost money, she adds.
"So many things were done on just a handshake," Kelleher says. "You don't have that loyalty anymore."
The veteran dealers say today's customers often know more about the cars in their showrooms than the salespeople do. Gone are the days, they say, when salesmen painstakingly explained features and made elaborate sales pitches.
Now, potential buyers often walk into dealerships knowing the options they desire and the price the dealer paid for a vehicle - information that is easily available on the Internet.
Make the deal
The nature of the sales transaction has changed in other ways, dealers say. Zimmerman says factory incentives have radically altered the process and redefined the role of salespeople.
"The day of the good salesman is probably gone," he says. "Everybody's selling the deal."
The deal itself is often done differently. Leasing has become common, dealers say, putting drivers in vehicles that might otherwise have been out of reach.
Then there's financing, which Phil Bollman, owner of Bollman Motor Sales in Rock Falls, Ill., calls "a whole different ballgame." Loan contracts have gotten longer, he notes. Upside-down customers - those who owe more on their current vehicles than they are worth - also complicate financing deals, he adds.
Bollman's dealership has been in business since 1946. In addition to Jeep and Chrysler, it has sold such now-defunct brands as Packard and Plymouth.
But in another reflection of industry change, Bollman today sells only used cars and trucks.
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