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Bargain hunters gather for last day of St. Pete Chrysler Jeep dealership

ST. PETERSBURG — Will Jacoby wouldn't look at a Chrysler for 30 years, ever since suffering through a wobbly engine and a persistently leaky windshield in the 1970s.

But even the Chrysler-phobic retiree from St. Pete Beach was drawn Tuesday to the lot of St. Pete Jeep Chrysler, one of 789 dealerships the Chrysler Corp. planned to shutter by the end of the day.

"My wife wants a new car," Jacoby said after peeking through the window of a dark green Jeep Patriot on the increasingly empty lot. "Now I can tell her, 'Dear, at least I looked.' "

The dealership's nine-person sales staff hustled Tuesday as customers streamed into the showroom, hoping to get last-minute bargains on the 35 cars that remained. Any left at the end of the day were to be sold at cost to remaining dealerships.

"If sales were this good all the time, we wouldn't be in this situation," manager Travis Cowart said after lunchtime visitors spilled into the showroom.

Owner William Douglas' business on U.S. 19 near 22nd Avenue N will stay open as a used-car superstore. His repair garage will continue to operate but can no longer service Chrysler warranty jobs.

His bitterness at his abandonment by America's third-biggest automaker wasn't far from the surface. His was one of three stores closed by the corporation out of about 30 Chrysler outlets in the Tampa Bay area.

Just 1½ years ago he renovated his cavernous new-car showroom that dominates the 8-acre lot on U.S. 19.

He paid a collective $2 million to buy the franchises in the 1980s and 1990s. And Chrysler won't offer him a dime in compensation. The corporate middlemen who used to coddle him during the days of profitability have been as elusive as ghosts.

Chrysler announced May 14 that it was terminating franchise agreements with about 25 percent of its 3,189 dealerships as part of its bankruptcy reorganization. The company awaits a buyout by Italy's Fiat.

Just a few months earlier, Chrysler had encouraged many dealers to restock their lots to help the company boost its financial outlook. The Tuesday deadline gave the terminated franchises less than four weeks to sell off a total of 42,000 vehicles.

Late last week, Chrysler sent contracts to dealers guaranteeing reallocation of any remaining stock at invoice prices, less a $350 fee and other incentives already paid on the vehicles. The notice only further frustrated many of the dealers slated to close, since they had already scrambled to sell the vehicles, cutting deals for a larger loss.

At Douglas' dealership, the plastic Chrysler Jeep sign along the highway will stay in place until Detroit takes it back. He won't waste time or labor removing it.

"I'm not taking it down. They own it. I'll just put a bag over it," Douglas said.

On Tuesday, many customers walked away with shiny new sedans, vans and SUVs, snared by rebates and incentives that ranged from $2,000 to $8,000. By late night, Douglas expected a total of 20 sales.

John Mensinga initially stopped by Dayton Andrews Dodge across the street, in search of a Dodge Challenger, but drifted over to St. Pete Chrysler.

"The deal was too good to pass up," said Mensinga, who traded up to a 2009 dark blue Chrysler 300, sticker price $44,000. "This car has the deluxe heritage interior."

When it comes to owning cars, the Chicago-bred Mensinga dutifully buys American. Not so Jacoby, who spurned not only Chrysler but also his once-beloved General Motors after the federal government nationalized the company this month.

As he examined the sticker on the green Jeep, he decided to look elsewhere, visions of that leaky windshield 30 years ago still swirling in his head.

"Do I or don't I? The answer's no," Jacoby said. "I'll only buy Toyota or Honda now."

Toyotas and Hondas — and Mercedeses and Lexuses, for that matter — will figure on Douglas' used-car lot. But first he had to unload the last of his Jeeps and Chryslers.

The dealership planned to stay open until 9 p.m. Tuesday, a poster inside the store proclaiming "Ready for the Next Generation."

Today it will reopen unaffiliated with Chrysler for the first time in 25 years.

Information from the Associated Press and Times wires was used in this report.

High court okays sale

The Supreme Court on Tuesday cleared the way for Chrysler's partnership with Italy's Fiat, rejecting an appeal by a trio of Indiana pension and construction funds, consumer groups and others to block the sale.

The court's refusal to revisit the issue removes the uncertainty posed by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's decision on Monday to halt the deal pending review. The court's decision came less than a week before the deal between Chrysler and Fiat was set to expire.

Bargain hunters gather for last day of St. Pete Chrysler Jeep dealership 06/09/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 9, 2009 11:18pm]

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