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Tampa Bay area car dealers shift to survival gear

Somebody release the emergency brake on auto sales.

Once again, sales of new vehicles in the Tampa Bay area are off by more than a third in April from the same month in 2008. It's the ongoing tale of "vehicular manslaughter" — of auto sales — with a 41 percent decline so far since the start of 2009, according to Autocount, part of Experian Automotive. Nationally, sales are just as bad.

This month, the sales numbers count more than ever. On Thursday, Chrysler is expected to disclose its list of dealers expected to survive the company's ongoing bankruptcy.

About 800, or a quarter of Chrysler's 3,200 dealerships, will see their franchise deals rejected, say wire reports.

My guess? Some area Chrysler dealerships will certainly get tagged to go away. But overall, I have to believe that Florida's auto dealers will get hurt far less than other areas where economic growth is flat or negative, like the Midwest. Florida's economy stinks right now, but long term it will remain a growth leader.

This is not just about Chrysler, of course. General Motors, already in the process of bidding adieu to its Saab, Saturn and Pontiac brands, is preparing to cut 40 percent of its dealers by the end of 2010. By Friday, GM will send warning letters to nearly 1,000 dealers, Automotive News reported.

We've already seen some dealer obits here with the closing of Bob Wilson Dodge, Autoway Dodge, Autoway Chevrolet and Bill Heard Chevrolet. Ernie Haire, a big Ford dealership, filed for bankruptcy protection late last year.

It's not as if dealerships are sitting around waiting for the ax to fall. In March, the Florida Automobile Dealers Association held a seminar in Orlando — more than 30 dealers registered to attend — to examine what happens if an automaker ends up in bankruptcy. And, no, it was not open to the media.

Pinellas County alone boasts more than 60 auto dealers with the vast majority reporting a decline in both April and year-to-date sales. But some dealerships — from Clearwater Toyota Scion, Courtesy Palm Harbor Honda and even Countryside Ford of Clearwater — are hanging tough and, in some cases, reporting sales gains this year.

In Hillsborough County, about 77 dealerships are operating with overall sales down 41 percent in April and 44 percent since Jan. 1 Still, dealers like Ferman Chrysler Jeep Dodge at Cypress Creek, Bill Currie Ford and Mastro Subaru are among those showing surprising resilience.

A great comeback story, so far, is that of newly arrived Stingray Chevrolet, which is fighting well against the tide at the former Bill Heard Chevrolet site in Plant City.

Ditto the ongoing strength of Ed Morse in Pasco County and Rick Matthews Buick Pontiac GMC in Hernando, just to name a few.

Sure, many others are not doing so well. Given the nasty recession and a pummeled auto industry, that's no surprise. Even Toyota, the world's largest automaker, said Wednesday it will cut vehicle production 28 percent to its lowest level in seven years.

Inevitably, cuts are coming. Getting the survivors back in gear will take some time.

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

Tampa Bay area car dealers shift to survival gear 05/13/09 [Last modified: Thursday, May 14, 2009 10:22am]

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