When Ford Chairman William Clay Ford, Jr., withdrew as the announced keynote speaker at the National Automobile Dealers Association 2000 convention, NADA leadership proposed his cousin, Edsel Ford II, as a replacement.

But the company declined the invitation, holding fast to its refusal to share the podium with outgoing NADA Chairman James A. Willingham. Speculation is that Ford brass thought Willingham might use the opportunity to scold Ford for its purchase of dealerships in certain markets.

Edsel Ford, former president of Ford Credit and previously a sales executive and district manager in New England and Southern California, says he would have been willing to address the convention in a keynote slot normally reserved for an automaker executive.

"But they didn't like the idea," he says of Ford's top echelon.

New NADA Chairman Harold B. Wells says, "Bill Ford's pullout, after all the trouble we had with the company last year over their retail ideas, was a real blow to Ford and Lincoln Mercury dealers.

"Ford didn't offer to send Jac Nasser (company president and CEO) or Bob Rewey (group vice-president for sales and marketing) in his place. Jim Willingham and I thought Edsel would have been great. He knows dealers and res-pects our position."

Edsel retired as Ford Credit president in 1998 to assume a new position as a co-ordinator and mediator for company issues involving the public. He is the son of the late Ford Chairman and CEO Henry Ford II.

John Glenn, former astronaut and U.S. Senator from Ohio, replaced Bill Ford as the keynote speaker.

Ford Motor Co. executives at an NADA franchise meeting reassured nearly 2,000 Ford Division dealers of their peaceful intentions.

Ford National Dealer Council Chairman Jerry Reynolds, who owns a dealership in Garland, TX, read a company-approved statement.

It reiterated promises not to bypass dealers in Internet vehicle sales and vowed to slow down on formation of dealer collections in which the automaker has equities and management roles.

"The statement said we would be the only source for distribution," Mr. Reynolds said after the closed meeting. "That's what we are mostly concerned about."

Ford Division President James G. O'Connor presided over the meeting and warned dealers about selling their stores to Internet ventures such as Trilogy, Inc.'s CarOrder.com of Austin, TX, which wants to buy dealerships.

Not all dealers are placated.

Gary Premeaux, owner of Ford dealerships in Hawthorne and Bellflower, CA, says, "Company officers still seem far from reality on what the relation with its dealers really means."

"A typical Ford meeting," declares Dale Schlenker, Ford dealer in Hamburg, PA.

Another dealer, who didn't want to be named, says, "They could have promised not to hurt us again without first consulting the dealer council or NADA. But they didn't."