Speaking to the Florida Automobile Dealers Assn. convention, I related this bit of family history: My late father was editor of Automotive News way back when. He had a deep respect for dealers and felt they – more than many others in the industry – knew what really was going on.

I could say, “Everything I learned in this business I learned from my father” – who told me, “Listen to the dealers.”

Auto makers, much more than in the past, are listening to their dealers. Why? Because dealers are smart, on the front line and know what’s what.

Here are a few quick examples:

A few years ago, Buick dealers were clamoring for an SUV. I asked the then-Buick Div. general manager about that, and he dismissed the suggestion, saying, “Dealers want everything.”

Well, not everything, but how about an SUV during the height of the SUV craze? Buick now has an SUV.

In 1997, GM’s Cadillac Div. introduced the new Catera, vowing it was going to turn the company around. I talked to a dealer in New Jersey who told me the Catera’s problem was that it didn’t look like a Cadillac.

He said, “My customers tell me it looks like a Chrysler from the back and a Chevy from the front, and they’re right.” The Catera is gone, and Cadillacs today look like Cadillacs.

In the early 1990s, Mercedes-Benz U.S. sales were hurting. A Bethesda, MD, Mercedes dealer named Mike Jackson tried to convince the German auto maker to put things in the car that appealed to the American market. Like decent cupholders. The response: “People should drive cars, not carry open beverages in them.”

Jackson told me that he told them: “You haven’t a clue.” But they were smart enough to hire him for the corporate side. He became president of Mercedes-Benz U.S.A. and helped turn the company around before becoming a dealer again, of sorts, as the head of AutoNation.

Oh, and Mercedes-Benz now has really nice cupholders in their vehicles. So good that Mercedes polled best in the industry in the cupholder competition at the recent Ward’s Auto Interiors Show.

No one group can give you a 360-degree perspective of the auto industry. Auto makers can give you their take, but it tends to be brand-biased. Auto suppliers will give you theirs, but it’s limited.

If I had to depend on one group for a strong perspective of the auto industry, it would be dealers.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com