When lifelong car enthusiast Bud Wells was 14, in 1951, he spent his free time peering into the windows of the dozen car dealerships in his hometown of Sterling, Colo., to admire the new cars.
"It was such a big deal," said Wells, a retired automotive reporter for The Denver Post and author of The Colorado Car Book. "Each fall, they'd have the openings to show off the new models. Some dealerships would paper their windows to keep the models out of sight."
Sterling, about a two-hour drive northeast of Denver with a population of about 14,500, had 12 franchised car dealerships selling some 20 brands in the 1950s and 1960s, he said. The owners and many employees lived and worked in town.
But today, it has just two stores selling nine brands. Both dealers live elsewhere.
Sterling reflects a national trend. In 1950, there were about 47,000 franchised car dealerships compared with 16,532 today, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association.
Part of that decline has come from small, rural dealerships closing or being absorbed by absentee owners. Industry observers blame factors including automakers' push for pricy facility improvements, a drought of successors or buyers for small stores and a shortage of lenders willing to finance small deals.
All of this points to more shrinkage in small towns, experts say.
"We're going to have continued closings and consolidation in these markets," said George Chaconas, a buy-sell adviser for Performance Brokerage Services in Irvine, Calif. "I wish it weren't true, because it's less business for us and less convenient for the customers."
The consolidation of single stores is troubling -- as Sheldon Sandler, managing partner of buy-sell advisory firm Bel Air Partners in Hopewell, N.J., learned firsthand in 2012.
"I made a speech to the National Automobile Dealers Association board of directors that we're a great business, but the mom-and-pop store won't compete as the larger stores gained more synergies," he said.