Retired Texas auto dealer Sterling McCall surprised fellow dealers in April when he testified in favor of Tesla Motors Inc.'s bid to carve out an exemption to state franchise law.
But after buying two Teslas himself -- and taking delivery of his Model S in a high school parking lot -- McCall became convinced that the current Texas law is unfair to the electric vehicle maker.
"When you have a case like Tesla, which doesn't have dealers, it just isn't right to tell them they can't sell their cars to a willing buyer in Texas without having to go through a local owner of a dealership," said McCall, a former longtime Houston Toyota and Lexus dealer who co-founded Group 1 Automotive Inc. "I just think it's wrong."
Tesla is seeking approval of legislation that would exempt it from current Texas law prohibiting manufacturer-owned dealerships. The Texas Automobile Dealers Association opposes the bills.
In addition to testifying at a legislative hearing on April 9, McCall wrote an op-ed piece supporting the Tesla bills that ran in the Houston Chronicle on April 29.
Though Tesla has two gallery locations in Houston and Austin, they are prohibited from sales activity. Customers must contact out-of-state Tesla representatives to complete a sale and make shipping arrangements.
For McCall, 78, who retired from Group 1 in 2006, that meant sending his money to Tesla's California operations and having his Model S titled in California. He picked up the car in the parking lot of Austin High School.
That approach won't work long term, McCall said. "I've been delivering cars for a long time, and this is not the way to deliver a car."
McCall should know. After working as a lawyer, he became a dealer in 1970, opening Houston's first single-line Toyota store. A former president of the Houston Automobile Dealers Association and former director of the state dealers association, he built large Toyota and Lexus stores before co-founding Group 1.
His name is still on eight Group 1 stores in the Houston market, according to Group 1's Web site. But McCall's old company disagrees with him.
"Let there be no doubt: We are totally, completely and firmly opposed to this," said Marvin Marcell, director of public affairs for Group 1. The franchise system is "a fundamental building block of our industry."
McCall bought his Tesla Roadster in 2010. He participates in the Tesla owners club of Austin, where he now lives. The Model S is his daily driver, and he says he sometimes feels a twinge of guilt about leaving his Lexus GS 450h in the garage.
McCall says he wasn't asked by Tesla to testify and his decision to do so startled even himself. He still counts himself a strong supporter of the franchise system and said so during his remarks to legislators.
"Looking back, I'm amazed I put on my dark blue suit and went down to the Capitol, but I did," he said. "That's not something I would normally do. But then I felt so strongly about it, I thought: 'Doggone it, I'm going to go do that.'"
McCall hasn't heard directly from many dealer friends on his testimony. But he learned through the grapevine that his testimony sparked much conversation -- "Dealers gossip worse than a lady's bridge club," he said.
If Tesla's legislation doesn't pass, McCall said, he hopes the company could still negotiate a compromise with dealers. But he also believes most dealers aren't worried about Tesla.
"I haven't had anybody call me out and say you're a real jerk for doing this," McCall said. "It's of no concern to the average dealer. It really isn't."