The throw-it-out-and-start-over strategy auto makers are now applying to dealers feels similar to the planned obsolescence used years ago to justify walking away from difficult product rather than investing in improvements.

Some auto makers have so consistently blamed dealers for their own miserable state of affairs that it seems like there's a factory policy against taking responsibility.

I remember early in my career as a dealer that Toyota and Datsun (now Nissan) considered dealerships the last point of their manufacturing. General Motors considered us the first step of distribution.

The key difference was that vehicle flaws caught in my Datsun store brought praise for the technicians whose watchful eyes were seen as the last line of defense against brand shame.

By comparison, work done by GM techs was met with a critical reminder that a flaw a customer didn't actually complain about was ineligible for warranty reimbursement.

The result was that superior process helped rocket certain brands past their competition. The upshot was that a generation of drivers grew up hearing stories of how smart it was to steer clear of bad brands.

Sadly, not all of today's survivors of the car wars have learned the deep cultural point that continuous improvement cannot be confined to product development. Surrounding a passionate design team with short-sighted, cut-throat marketing strategies is a doomed plan.

Using dealers and vendors as scapegoats has left certain manufacturers morally bankrupt and commercially unpopular. The continuing signs of that are when manufacturers solicit new dealers and find them at best gun shy and at worst downright uninterested.

I would love to be a fly on the wall during the solicitations made by manufacturers that cut hundreds of dealers' throats on the excuse that it was necessary for the system's survival. Before, the excuse was that too many dealers undermined the ability to survive. Now, it's that they were the wrong dealers.

As quickly as the “Clunkers” cash bash ends, rather than take on the tougher job of motivating dealers and product engineers, we will again be inundated with celebrity pitchmen and heady debates on the number of cup holders and stereo speakers that separate one limp product from the next.

Clunkers rewarded all the wrong things in an effort to promote a fast turn. The result was that buyers of gas guzzlers were rewarded for having them long enough to trade them, while consumers who had always been environmentally responsible were denied any benefit.

Then there's the question of which manufacturers got the greatest sales boost and on which shore all our tax dollars are ultimately winding up as auto-maker profit.

I admit that consumers are often short sighted and shallow, swayed by fashion and whim.

But, if we're to make real progress in the car business, our government and our manufacturers must turn attention to supporting products that are well priced, fuel stingy and fun to drive. They need to reward and engineer great vehicles rather than design short-term financial incentives.

The challenges are not quite as difficult as recent results suggest. I'm confident that as soon as we exhaust all other alternatives, we will build a great car, for a reasonable price, negotiated transparently by an honest dealer with a commitment to customer service.

In time, we'll get down to what's really important. Cheap products won't be excused by their prices.

Field service will separate otherwise similar products. Likewise, how quickly a manufacturer deals with the fuzzy line of what caused a product breakdown and whether it will be covered under warranty will determine the trustworthiness of a manufacturer and its dealers.

I wait for manufacturers to learn that the most powerful way to win customers is as simple as empowering their team to do the right thing, right away.
Peter Brandow is a veteran auto dealer.