Ron Tonkin and memories of the 1989 NADA convention

NEW ORLEANS -- News of dealer Ron Tonkin's passing took me back to an NADA convention in New Orleans exactly 25 years ago.

It was only my second time at NADA's wingding, and what an extravaganza it was!

In New Orleans in 1989, Tonkin accepted his election as NADA president with a stem-winder of a speech vowing to stand up to the factories on behalf of dealers. He compared himself to Mike Tyson, saying, "Not everybody likes what they hear about him, but so far nobody's beaten him."

Tonkin was not the only news at the convention.

The company behind Yugo, one of more than a dozen franchises Tonkin held, declared bankruptcy in the middle of the NADA gathering. Dealers begged Yugo's bosses not to do it, saying American consumers would never buy a car built by a bankrupt automaker, but their pleas were ignored.

At the other end of the vehicle spectrum, Lexus and Infiniti had just made their global debut at the Detroit auto show, newly renamed as the North American International Auto Show. In the hallways at NADA, dealers debated the prospects of those new brands, plus a third: Saturn.

General Motors introduced its first wave of 23 Saturn dealers during the convention. I combed through the lists of Lexus, Infiniti and Saturn dealers to see who was taking on multiple untested brands.

Jesse Snyder, an Automotive News reporter at the time, and I searched out the Creole restaurant that had been the inspiration for the then-current television show Frank's Place. Over amazing food and more than a few beers, we discussed the new brands.

Our conclusion: If the trends then at play continued, our children would think Mercedes-Benz' styling was as boring as Cadillac's 1989 styling was in our eyes.

The convention itself was packed, with NADA bragging about attendance almost double what it had been a decade earlier. Computer service booths proliferated, overwhelming the parts exhibits that old-timers told me used to dominate.

At a number of workshops, standing-room-only crowds spilled into the hallways. Sessions on going public, a new concept back then, were packed -- at first. I listened as one presenter told the crowd that a dealership group that wanted to sell shares to the public would have to have at least a year, preferably two or more, of audited results. And that meant business-only numbers.

"You gotta take the boat off the company's books," I recall him saying. About a third of the attendees promptly stood and left.

Although Tonkin complained about factories squeezing dealers' profits, the automakers themselves were profitable, and dealers were looking for a party. Overall, the mood in the Big Easy was upbeat. Mardi Gras preparations were cranking up. Again and again, I was delayed in getting around the city by floats of revelers.

My most enduring image of that NADA gathering 25 years ago is of the Chevrolet party for its dealers, held in the Superdome. GM's market share was already slipping, a slide that would last more than a decade. But then-Chevy boss Bob Burger wasn't going to let that spoil the fun. He rode into the Superdome atop a Mardi Gras float, throwing handfuls of fake coins stamped "Burger's Doubloons" to the cheering dealers.

Imagine it: Automakers throwing money at dealers, who grab it and then realize it's fake. No wonder Ron Tonkin was angry.

You can reach James B. Treece at

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