Like the industry it tracks, the Automotive News dealership census has changed over the years.
Twenty years ago, it was a barometer of the health of the retail industry in general and of individual brands in particular. For the industry, the census indicated the shape the market was in. In a bad year, dealers bailed out. In a good year, they hung on because they were making money.
For individual brands, the number of dealerships was even more important. A steady drop signified trouble, even possible extinction. Like DeSoto. Or like Pontiac before the Knudsen-Estes-DeLorean resurrection of the 1950s and 1960s.
Today, the dealership census charts the progress of makers and brands toward well-defined goals. The Big 3 are overdealered; they want to trim their retail organizations, so don't be concerned about a drop in total outlets. They all want bigger but fewer dealerships.
The most successful imports want more stand-alone dealerships; they don't want to share showroom space with other makes.
The report for 2002 shows that both groups made progress.
The Big 3 are slimming down dealership organizations that grew to almost unmanageable heights in the industry's early days. General Motors had 17,360 dealerships when World War II began in 1941, compared with 7,577 today. The Ford marque had 10,000 in the 1920s; it has 3,927 today.
Those early periods were the days of mom and pop shops, small dealerships that served their small communities and sold fewer than 100 cars a year. People shopped near home way back then.
The nation's expressway system changed all that. Families didn't mind a 30-mile trip to get a better deal; it took only 30 minutes. Some mom and pop shops survive, but their number and their importance have dwindled.
Expressways were a way of life when imported vehicles were building a following in this country. The importers realized that they didn't have to have a store at every crossroads in order to serve the entire United States.
The result: Toyota sold 1.5 million cars and trucks last year with 1,200 dealerships; Honda sold nearly 1.1 million with 1,000 dealerships. On the other hand, Ford sold twice as many vehicles as Toyota, but it had three times as many dealerships.
Sales per dealership, a companion project to the Automotive News dealership census, is becoming more important. It ranks the various brands in terms of new-vehicle sales per store, a vital number for anyone contemplating a career as a dealer. Last year, for example, Toyota had 1,267 sales per dealership; Ford had 762.
The dealership census also points out longevity and stability, and the Big 3 score just about all the points in those fields. In the past 40 years, Plymouth, Studebaker and the American Motors cars have dropped out of the domestic picture, and Oldsmobile is about to depart. Saturn and Hummer have joined the pack.
In 1960, Automotive News counted 61 imported makes on sale in this country. Today, there are 27, with the Maybach from Mercedes-Benz waiting in the wings.
Those long-ago entries? You get a gold star if you can recall Borgward, Goggomobil, Lloyd, Arnolt-Bristol, Facel Vega, Panhard, Sabra and Moretti.