SAN FRANCISCO — Dealers, who for years were unwillingly cast in an “I-don't-get-no-respect” role of the auto industry, are enjoying newfound esteem these days.

They're getting that with help from themselves, happier consumers and auto executives who note dealers have come a long way from the “shake and bake” days of showroom antics.

Dealers are feeling good about themselves and their growing positive public image. That came through at the annual National Automobile Dealers Association convention held here Feb. 2-5.

Factory-dealer friction — traditionally a hot topic at NADA conventions — was all but a non-issue this year as dealers and major auto executives spoke highly of each other and reaffirmed their need for each other.

A mood of the convention seemed to be that dealers, rather than defending themselves as in the past, are savoring their higher regard within the industry and with consumers.

There are different reasons for that changing perception.

One is that dealers — almost more than any other group of retailers — have embraced customer satisfaction in recent years.

“Customer orientation is a big part of our modern culture, and dealers are a great example of that” says Lee Poseidon, who ran NADA's dealer services division and now is a senior vice president at Bell & Howell Publishing Services.

He adds, “Dealers really got the customer satisfaction message. They're converts to it.”

Auto makers had something to do with converting dealers to the gospel that treating customers well drives loyalty both to the brand and the dealership.

That came was after auto makers started getting their acts together by building better cars, realizing that poor products, more than anything, turn off consumers and force dealers into untenable positions.

“Chevy dealers in the 1970s and ‘80s were the greatest marketers in the world, or they wouldn't have been able to produce all those s — boxes GM was putting out,” a former Chevrolet dealer says.

Producing poor-quality vehicles and then peddling them by any means possible at the dealership hurt manufacturers and dealers alike.

That's all changed. As product quality improved, so did dealers' treatment of customers.

The results are tangible and impressive. Studies show growing consumer satisfaction with dealerships. That's prevalent across all ethnic and gender categories, especially women, who in the past had not always found the dealership experience pleasant.

Overall, 94% of people polled spoke positively of their dealership purchase experience, according to a new survey by Automotive Retailing Today (ART).

The news media is sensing the change for the better. The ART survey says 52% of polled journalists — compared to 39% in 1998 — now believe customers would report positive experiences at franchised car dealerships.

Another big reason for dealers growing public esteem and self-esteem is a “code of ethics” movement. It got started at the NADA convention last year. It's gaining ground this year.

NADA's goal is to get all members to sign the do-the-right-thing code and prominently post it at their stores.

“Call it good timing or just luck, but NADA had already begun to work on the Code of Ethics before the Enron and other corporate scandals broke,” says 2002 NADA Chairman H. Carter Myers III. “We saw a need within our industry to improve, and we went to work on it.”

Members of the Greater Lehigh Valley (PA) Automobile Dealers Association were first to sign the code. The latest to sign: AutoNation Inc.'s top management and all of its more than 280 dealership general managers.

Myers, as NADA chairman, first introduced the Code of Ethics. His NADA successor, Alan Starling, vows to make it a top agenda item of his tenure.

Starling says manufacturers should accept dealer input as “standard equipment, and not just an option.” He adds that since dealers expect fair play from auto makers, they must treat all customers fairly all the time.

“Until we take every step to fully earn the public's trust, we can't complain when our image falls short,” he says.

Both Myers of Virginia and Starling of Florida are Southern gentlemen in word and deed. They represent the best in today's modern dealer.

It's wrong to say most dealers of today are ethical and most of yesteryear weren't. After all, both Myers and Starling say they got their strong values from their dealer dads.

But a vast majority of today's dealers are doing right with consumers, and enjoying the esteem that brings.