Special Coverage

NADA Convention & Exposition

SAN FRANCISCO – Auto makers would build more desirable vehicles if they consulted with their dealers during the early stages of product development.

So says Dale Willey, chairman of the National Automobile Dealers Assn., speaking to an auditorium full of dealers at a general session that formally opens NADA’s 2008 convention here.

Willey says auto makers spend millions on focus groups trying to learn what consumers want, yet seldom consult with dealers who hear customers’ wants, desires and complaints on a daily basis.

"We hear everything they like and dislike," he says of customer input ranging from rear doors that are too small to cupholders placed too close to audio-system knobs.

"I’m not saying we have all the answers, and we can’t build the vehicles," Willey says. "But we literally touch the market. The product information we collect is invaluable. And best of all, it’s free.

"If more manufacturers tapped into that, they would sell more ‘gotta-have’ vehicles."

Willey also urges auto companies to treat "all" dealers as partners, "not just a favored few."

In a perfect world, auto makers and dealers would be true partners in the making and selling of vehicles people want to buy, he says.

But often in the real world, auto makers only see dealers as partners when the companies have "excess inventory or slow-selling vehicles" they’re trying to unload.

Willey draws applause when he declares that factory incentives to dealers are inherently unfair if structured in a way that lowers the cost of doing business for some but not others.

Chrysler LLC recently dropped a bonus program that critics said did just that.

"All dealers must compete on a level playing field, and manufacturers are not the best referees," Willey says.

He receives a standing ovation for his address at the opening session, an event that mixes serious speeches and light entertainment.

Willey’s speech is preceded by an Ed Sullivan impersonator who, in the style of that namesake classic TV show, introduces a jugging act, magician and four musicians imitating the Beatles.

Later, the audience hears from General Motors Corp. CEO Richard Wagoner and late-night TV host Jay Leno, a car enthusiast who tells the dealers, "I love what you guys do."

sfinlay@wardsauto.com