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Can dealers push back like it's 1989?

NEW ORLEANS -- Twenty-five years ago this month, Ron Tonkin rolled into New Orleans ready to take on the automakers.

“Like the characters from the movie 'Network,' we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore,” Tonkin vowed as he became president of the National Automobile Dealers Association for 1989.

A legend was born. When he died last week at 82, Tonkin was remembered as a firebrand for dealers’ rights -- a blunt and colorful advocate who challenged the factory executives with zeal.

But dealers lament there may not be many more like Tonkin in the making.

It’s different today.

Dealers who speak up face repercussions from the factories. Though that was a risk in 1989, it wasn’t the same, dealers say. Back then, dealers and factory executives could argue and then go socialize together.

Now “there’s a concern your allocation could be affected,” said H. Carter Myers III, a Virginia dealer and 2002 NADA chairman. “There’s a concern that other things could hurt your business if you speak your mind.”

It puts the weight of pushing back against factory initiatives increasingly on the shoulders of dealer association executives. Some dealers and state association leaders have criticized NADA leadership in recent years for not challenging manufacturer demands more forcefully.

But there is strength in numbers. Maybe it’s time for everyone to adopt some of that Ron Tonkin zeal.

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