AUTOMOBILE DEALERS LOST ONE OF THEIR MOST prolific battlers for fair play when Ed Mullane died on Oct. 7.

He was a champion for dealers' rights. He was at the center of action wherever there were controversies and fair treatment issues over the relationship between new-car dealers and Detroit.

He defined the core of dealer unrest through a masterful command of language in many published trade articles. However, there was an altogether more powerful tone when he spoke to groups about inequities that manufacturers imposed on dealers.

He founded the Ford Dealer Alliance. It was his initial effort to bring Ford dealers' inequities to the attention of the entire retail industry. In fact, a significant number of non-Ford dealers joined the Alliance. Its initial goal was to focus attention on the unfairness of Ford's new-vehicle warranty reimbursement.

The fact that all manufacturers' reimbursement was a general problem brought hundreds of non-Ford dealers into the ranks of the Ford Dealer Alliance.

Unlike other highly visible dealer advocates, Ed Mullane did his research. That gained him undeniable credibility with top Ford executives.

For example when he and the Alliance addressed the problem of Ford's warranty reimbursement set-up, the group hired a highly respected research firm (Booz Allen) to arm them with valid data in their fight with Ford.

Ed Mullane had a knack for identifying factory-dealer problems. He outlined them with courage and conviction. He verbalized many dealers' complaints regarding their respective franchise agreements. Those were dealers who hesitated to speak out in fear of reprisal from their manufacturers.

Mr. Mullane was a profitable Ford dealer in New Jersey whose career spanned four decades. A former school teacher, his persona was not bombastic. Meeting him for the first time, I hardly believed that those fiery articles criticizing Detroit came from this gentle, soft-spoken stately person.

He was part of NADA President Billy Hancock's original team that founded the Dealer Action Committee. This was another example of Mr. Mullane's readiness to take up the gauntlet for dealer's rights - in this case with Congress.

His relationship with NADA was far from ideal. He was impatient for NADA to adopt a stronger posture toward Detroit. NADA's position was that the interests of their 20,000 members were best served with negotiation and the avoidance of public fighting. This was appropriate because NADA represented all sorts of dealers, import and domestic.

However, Mr. Mullane was a great catalyst. He certainly got Detroit's attention! Ironically, his style and NADA's milder style worked well in tandem. It was like "good cop, bad cop." He played the "bad cop." NADA's Industry Relations committees and board members played the "good cop" in their negotiations with manufacturer's reps.

Mr. Mullane's latest and last crusade was directed at Ford's Blue Oval Certification program. It's a blatant attempt at two-tier pricing which has the potential to put many smaller dealers out of business.

Mr. Mullane's opinion of this impending Ford program was expressed in a recent editorial in the Ford Dealer Alliance newsletter.

He said, "Blue Oval Certified can best be described as one of the most over-written bunch of bureaucratic bull upon which I have ever laid my eyes.

It is apparent by this program that Ford Motor Company wants a uniform, McDonaldized dealer body. In short, Ford has assumed the right to take over our (the dealers') business."

To the end, he was a champion in the spirit of all the great names in our industry who made a difference by battling for dealers' rights.