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 â€“ more than many others in the industry â€“ knew what really was going on.
I could say, â€śEverything I learned in this business I learned from my fatherâ€ť â€“ who told me, â€śListen to the dealers.â€ť
Auto makers, much more than in the past, are listening to their dealers. Why? Because dealers are smart, on the front line and know whatâ€™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, â€śDealers want everything.â€ť
Well, not everything, but how about an SUV during the height of the SUV craze? Buick now has an SUV.
In 1997, GMâ€™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 Cateraâ€™s problem was that it didnâ€™t look like a Cadillac.
He said, â€śMy customers tell me it looks like afrom the back and a Chevy from the front, and theyâ€™re right.â€ť 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: â€śPeople should drive cars, not carry open beverages in them.â€ť
Jackson told me that he told them: â€śYou havenâ€™t a clue.â€ť 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.
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 Wardâ€™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 itâ€™s limited.
If I had to depend on one group for a strong perspective of the auto industry, it would be dealers.