MUNICH -- German auto executives are keeping a wary eye on the United States, fearing a boycott over the German government's opposition to war with Iraq.
Bernd Gottschalk, head of the VDA, the German car industry association, is apprehensive about discord between Berlin and Washington. "Although our relationships to the customers in America have grown for many years and can stand a lot, we should not put them at risk carelessly," Gottschalk says.
Despite German fears, most U.S. consumers have shown no inclination to boycott anything. "We have talked to dealers and there is no impact on their business up to this point," says a BMW spokesman in New Jersey.
Still, more than half of the German managers, politicians and heads of public authorities polled by the Allensbach Institute for public opinion research in Germany said they believe "the different positions toward a war in Iraq will have negative effects on the economic relations."
Industrialists are so concerned that the Atlantic-Bruecke (means Atlantic Bridge) group, which calls itself the oldest German-American friendship organization, ran an ad in The New York Times on Feb. 16. The ad emphasized the 50-year bond between the United States and Germany.
DaimlerChrysler CEO Juergen Schrempp, one of the signers of the ad, says there are no indications the dispute between the U.S. and German governments will affect the company's U.S. business. "But we are extremely busy in communication on both sides of the Atlantic," Schrempp said during the presentation of the 2002 financial results in Stuttgart last week.
Although Mercedes would be identified as a German brand, the Chrysler group is American and would not be affected in even the worst-case scenario, Chrysler group CEO Dieter Zetsche predicted.
U.S. marketing officials for Volkswagen last week reported little consumer backlash. "Our best gauge is when we talk to dealers and the field organization, and it has had no impact on their sales or their traffic," said a spokesman for Volkswagen of America and Audi of America in Troy, Mich., last week. "Domestic issues have been more of a concern."
Said the BMW spokesman: "We've had perhaps a dozen e-mails or letters from customers saying, 'If Germany doesn't support the U.S., don't count on me to buy another BMW.' "
In Germany, Porsche is especially nervous because more than 50 percent of its business is in the United States. The critical U.S. launch of the Cayenne SUV is planned for mid-March.
Jens Neumann, the VW board member responsible for North America, signed the New York Times ad. Some insiders say VW is at risk if there is a boycott because there are numerous alternatives to cars made in Wolfsburg.
Says one VW manager in Wolfsburg: "If an anti-German attitude became common in the U.S.A., it would be a severe problem."
Staff reporter Diana T. Kurylko contributed to this report