Sunshine and sea breezes characterize the cozy auto retailing world of southern Florida. That and contempt for auto dealer Earl Stewart.
Stewart, 67, whose father was selling Pontiacs in West Palm Beach when Franklin Roosevelt was in the White House, is a pariah in his palm-treed world.
Hoping to make auto retailing more desirable for his children, he launched a public crusade against the document fees that many dealers tack onto sales contracts. Many of his retailing brethren, who say he is using the do-gooder campaign to sell more autos, wish he would just shut up.
Dealers across Florida are aghast that Stewart wants them to stop a practice he calls "their dirty little secret": charging $250, $500 or $1,000 on top of an agreed-upon sales price for vaguely labeled "dealer service fees" or "document processing fees."
But the white-haired owner of Earl Stewart Toyota in North Palm Beach does more than just want them to stop. He buys TV time to needle them about it. He runs print ads to call attention to it. He has created an Internet blog, www.earlstewartoncars.com/, to vent about it.
Stewart is using his AM-radio talk show, www.seaviewam960.com/ EarlStewart.asp, to drum up consumer awareness of it. He is pressing the Florida Automobile Dealers Association to end to the practice.
And last year, he led a one-man campaign to get Florida's legislature to make the practice illegal. As a result, half a dozen dealers were put on the hot seat in state Senate hearings.
All of that effort was to no avail — except that most of Florida's auto industry elite are now irritated at him.
"I guess I'm not very popular with the other dealers around here," Stewart says. "I haven't lost any friends over this. My attitude is that the people who have dropped me weren't my friends to begin with."