Chrysler dealerships slated to close won't go away quietly

In two weeks, Chrysler will close the door on 789 of its dealerships, including three in Pinellas County and more than 30 across Florida.

Chrysler declared Chapter 11 bankruptcy and is about to sell many of its assets to a "New Chrysler" to be owned by Italian automaker Fiat, auto unions and the federal government. Chrysler says this requires an unfortunate but necessary slimming down of sales outlets in a period of dwindling demand.

What's the alternative? Chrysler's liquidation.

More than a few Chrysler dealerships targeted for extinction do not plan to go quietly into the night.

• A group calling itself the Committee of Chrysler Affected Dealers and representing 300 disenfranchised dealers in 45 states, last week asked the bankruptcy court to delay the sale of Chrysler assets and the company's ending of nearly 800 dealership franchise agreements. But halting Chrysler's plan, now more in the hands of a bankruptcy judge than Chrysler managers, seems a long shot.

• Bradenton Chrysler dealer Jim Boast Dodge (now run by son Bob Boast) in the past week separately asked a New York federal judge to block Chrysler's plans to cancel its franchise. Boast claims it and other dealers were pressured by Chrysler to help the company look better by ordering more cars while it negotiated with the Obama administration. Boast was asked to take 60 vehicles but took four.

• Chrysler told targeted dealers that it will not buy back their current inventory of cars. That amounts to 44,000 vehicles in the hands of 789 dealerships that must either be sold to other local dealers, sold at auction or sold to the public. Hence the brisk discounts on new Chryslers.

• Lawmakers plan to order the Chrysler and General Motors CEOs to Washington next month to testify how their companies are forcing dealers to cut tens of thousands of U.S. jobs while the automakers operate with taxpayer-paid bailout funds. Combined, nearly 2,000 dealerships are closing throughout America, and over 100,000 jobs are at risk.

So far, the most articulate dealer outrage belongs to Jack Fitzgerald, a Maryland-based owner of 13 dealerships in three states, including Clearwater's Fitzgerald Countryside Jeep slated to be dropped by Chrysler.

A blunt Fitzgerald told the Washington Times and Fox News that normally he would not break his 11th Commandment — Do not speak poorly of the company that makes the vehicles you sell. But that time is past.

"Some jerk in Detroit who has ruined his company is going to say I'm an underperforming dealer?" a frustrated Fitzgerald told the Washington paper. "I've done nothing but grow every year for 43 years."

That's commendable, even impressive, when Chrysler vehicles consistently are rated low in Consumer Report reviews. GM vehicles are not much higher in the ranks.

When Chrysler argues that it has made progress in quality, Fitzgerald responds: "Chrysler has a lot of practice explaining its poor ratings."

The good news? Come June 13, not all 789 dealerships will close. Many also sell vehicles from other manufacturers. Even more will coax a living by selling used cars.

That's something.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

The future of Chrysler hung in the balance Wednesday as it made its case in bankruptcy court to sell the bulk of its assets to a group headed by Italy's Fiat in hopes of saving itself from liquidation. The proposed sale remains controversial, with hundreds of objections filed by the automaker's dealers, bondholders, former employees and others, although most have been resolved. If the deal doesn't close by June 15, Fiat could back out, leaving Chrysler with no other option but to shut down. The hearing was expected to continue well into Wednesday night, with a decision from the judge perhaps not coming until the wee hours of Thursday morning.

Associated Press

Chrysler dealerships slated to close won't go away quietly 05/27/09 [Last modified: Wednesday, May 27, 2009 8:11pm]

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