The dealership people couldn't have been nicer. They were accommodating, professional and efficient. Most of all, they were honest.

A LOT OF CUSTOMERS GET THEIR VEHICLES SERVICED at independent shops, figuring it will cost them less than at dealerships.

But those same people can face a lot of risks, aggravations and, ultimately, a higher repair bill at the independents.

Illustrating that is a family story with a happy ending, thanks to a dealership.

Last month, my son, Matt, was returning home to Michigan from Alabama in his 1987 BMW, newly purchased with six-figure mileage on the odometer.

It was Sunday night in rural northern Georgia when Matt pulled into a rest stop. When he tried to restart the car…nothing. I'm sure there are worse times and places for that to happen. But that's about as bad as it gets for being stranded.

Matt had his disabled vehicle towed to the nearest town, a dot on the map. The only car repair place was an independent shop. He went in late Monday morning to check on what was wrong and find out how much it would cost.

That's when the trouble began.

A mechanic supposedly had looked at the car earlier — then left work for the rest of the day. When Matt got there, the mechanic was in Atlanta.

When Matt finally got a chance to talk to him, the mechanic claimed the BMW's motor was “fried” and that it would cost $4,500 to install a rebuilt engine.

That raised eyebrows. For one thing, the car was running fine until Matt turned into the rest stop. A “fried” engine would typically be dying a noisy death.

So there Matt was in a small town auto repair shop, with a mechanic, who wasn't even on the premises, telling him on the phone that he needed a new engine at a cost which rivaled what Matt had paid for the car.

Matt's mom intervened at that point. She arranged for the car to be towed down to the Hank Aaron BMW dealership in Atlanta.

Things got a whole lot better from that point on. The dealership people couldn't have been nicer. They were accommodating, professional and efficient. Most of all, they were honest.

The cost for replacing some worn parts and such? About $800. That's not cheap. But it's a lot less than the $4,500 the independent shop of questionable credibility wanted for replacing an engine that didn't really need to be replaced.

I'm not saying that every independent shop is shady and every dealership's service department is beyond reproach.

But I dare say that a customer is much more likely to get ripped off at an independent shop than at a dealership. And dealerships treat customers better.

Whole lotta shakin' going on

It's a great time to be alive — if you like change.

So says David Cole, director of the Center for Automotive Research, discussing how the auto industry is reshaping.

That's created industry instability despite relatively stable economic times.

“It's not pretty, it's not easy and it's not over,” says Mr. Cole, speaking to the 2001 Conference on Automotive Remarketing.

So what's going on?

For one thing, there's a shakeout of manufacturers and suppliers, with the latter taking on greater responsibility in the building of vehicles. Suppliers basically used to build parts. Then they started supplying components. Now many of the suppliers are building full automotive systems and modules. There may come a day when Lear Corp. or Johnson Controls will supply the entire interior of a vehicle.

If manufacturers are relying more and more on suppliers, suppliers feel they are expected to cut their costs every time an auto company has profit problems. And the UAW frets that a greater reliance on suppliers threatens union jobs at auto factories.

Then there's the Internet and how it affects the auto world.

“It's moving at 100 mph, we're not sure where it's going, and there's no road map,” says Mr. Cole.

If that makes people fearful, well, that's OK, as long as it's a healthy fear, says Mr. Cole.

“Fear can be good if it energizes rather than paralyzes,” he says. “We can all learn to use e-technology effectively.”

Dealer is new columnist:

We're pleased to add Peter Brandow as an Internet columnist. He's a dealer with 25 years experience, and a pioneer of using the Internet to sell cars.

He's an attorney, too. He sits on various boards, lectures dealer groups around the country and has been an advisor to GM and DaimlerChrysler.

Despite all that activity, he still finds time to sell lots of vehicles. The Brandow Companies produce revenues of about $150 million and retail about 5,000 vehicles a year. Mr. Brandow's goal is to sell 25% through the Internet.

He's a lively writer with a strong point of view. Look for his inaugural column in this edition's Internet section.


Steve Finlay is editor of Ward's Dealer Business. His e-mail address is: steve_finlay@intertec.com