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Car buyers scramble as dealers call it quits early on Cash for Clunkers

TAMPA

Nicole Brown turned on the Today show Saturday and let out a cry of panic. It was the final countdown to the Cash for Clunkers program, which ends Monday. Many auto dealers, knee-deep in federal reimbursement forms and red tape, had already called it quits. For weeks, Brown, 25, a hospice worker who handles admittances and paperwork, had read up on the $3 billion federal rebate program and reviewed the fine print at cars.gov. She starts her master's classes at the University of South Florida next week and needed a dependable car to get between Tampa and her New Port Richey home. She knew her 1992 Buick Regal — the one with starter problems and lousy shocks that seems like there's a "dude in the trunk" — didn't qualify. It was one mile per gallon too efficient. But she needed the government's $4,500 clunker credit to buy the blue Honda Civic she wanted because she didn't have cash to put down. She thought about her aunt, Jane Swartz. She had the "dogmobile" gas guzzler. They had to move quick.

• • •

On Saturday, dealers across the nation stopped participating in Cash for Clunkers to make sure they could complete federal paperwork by Monday.

"We stopped at 5 p.m. last night because there's just so much you have to do," said Grieg Larsen, sales manager at Walker Ford in Clearwater.

The dealership on U.S. 19 also had sold out of every qualifying Focus, Fusion and Escape.

Even Fort Lauderdale-based monster chain AutoNation, which has 220 dealerships across 15 states, quit early, said company spokesman Marc Cannon.

The New York Times reported that many car dealers said they had ended sales because there is already a bottleneck on the Web site where the paperwork must be filed, but U.S. Transportation Department officials said it was merely a glitch caused by computer upgrades to handle more traffic.

All told, auto dealers have made 489,269 sales under the Cash for Clunkers program, according to data released Friday by the Transportation Department. The top-selling cars were the Toyota Corolla, the Honda Civic and the Ford Focus. The top vehicle traded in: the Ford Explorer. The total value of the rebates claimed by dealers stood at $2 billion. Transportation Department officials estimate that auto dealers have yet to submit about $400 million in vouchers.

David Bills, general sales manager of Tampa Honda Land, said his dealership also stopped participating early. The government owes the dealer about $400,000 in rebates, he said. Tampa Honda Land has a lot full of beat-up, traded-in cars — so many that one employee had to be assigned to just work on the reimbursement process.

• • •

Just before noon, Brown and her aunt pulled into Tampa Honda Land in the dogmobile.

The 1994 white Mercury Marquis had white leather seats so cracked they seemed like earth scorched by sun and drought and a front bumper that looked like tobacco-stained teeth from bug splats. Dog fur seemed to grow out of the side paneling. Half the back seat cover was scalped.

The car had one use: to transport the Swartzes three golden retrievers to the dog park.

There was no doubt. It qualified as a clunker.

Brown had made her aunt a deal. Give up the dog mobile for Brown's Buick. Swartz agreed.

Waving a title and years of insurance and registration forms, Brown and Swartz approached salesman Elie Eid. His boss said if Brown had all the required records, the dealership would try.

Upon looking through the forms to make sure Swartz had owned the car for a while, he saw gaps of proof were missing: six months of insurance and one registration form.

If Swartz could get that documentation, Eid could process the paperwork.

"We're taking a chance with the registration," he said, "but hopefully by Monday morning, you can get it."

Both Swartz and Eid jumped on the phone immediately.

Time was running out.

Information from Reuters and the Associated Press was used in this report. Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or jgeorge@sptimes.com.

Car buyers scramble as dealers call it quits early on Cash for Clunkers 08/22/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 22, 2009 10:03pm]
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