‘It feels like the car business again'

Car dealers are more upbeat these days.

Some, like the irrepressible Bob Rohrman in Lafayette, Ind., are happier than normal. Even those still waiting for local conditions to thaw, such as Egglefield Ford General Manager Peter Allen in upstate New York, say this sure beats a year ago.

Now finding upbeat dealers is hardly a surprise. At Automotive News, we have the same running gag I first heard here in the 1980s, that our headline for Armageddon would read: “World ends; dealers optimistic.”

That's not a putdown. Optimism is a salesman's natural -- and highly functional -- state of mind. A pessimistic salesman can't sell.

I saw that plucky but hard-nosed spirit last year, the industry's near Armageddon. When volume crashed dealers didn't sugarcoat the outlook, but were optimistic they would survive.

This year, volume is up -- but only compared to last spring's mess. Yet last week dealers were talking about how factory spiffs let them sell more. More cars. More equipment. More leases. And yes, more service contracts, life insurance, wheels and covers.

Like the dealers, I was searching for a way to properly describe the change in mood. I mean, it's been awhile since anybody could trust a warm feeling.

Then Carlos Hoz de Vila, head of Condor Automotive in West Chester, Pa., put it in perspective. Current factory incentives are putting auto retailing back into familiar territory, he said.

“It feels like the car business again.”

And that's it. We're still short of three-quarters the volume of the last decade. But Truly Ghastly has improved just enough that dealers can recognize conditions they have encountered -- and survived -- before.

We're back on a path we've seen before. It's a real Thanks-I-can-find-my-way-home-from-here moment.