This month's sale of Ford Motor Co.'s remaining Auto Collection stores marks the close of a sorry chapter in U.S. auto retailing.
What began in 1997 as an experiment in factory ownership of dealerships in Tulsa, Okla., turned into a major initiative in five U.S. markets. Amid dealer howls, Ford backed off two years later. It has taken three more years to clean up the debris. Most of the stores have been sold back to independent retailers.
The costs are incalculable, but the moral is clear: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Through the prism of 2002, it's easy to sneer at Ford's strategy back then. But at the time, Republic Industries (now AutoNation Inc.) was sweeping America, buying up some of the nation's finest dealerships. Elsewhere, savvy companies considered the status quo as something that had to be challenged. The experts said those who acted swiftly and decisively would win in the Internet economy. And auto companies that knew what it was all about finally were finding ways to treat customers right.
If dealers couldn't do that consistently, Ford would help them out by creating retail partnerships in those five markets - or so the thinking went.
As it turned out, the Auto Collection adventure was way too much, way too soon. Some companies thrive in this business by watching others put their toes in the water and then learning from their experience. With the Auto Collections, Ford tested the waters by diving in head first.