Flipping through a 1998 issue of Ward’s Dealer Business magazine, I came across a story that made me chuckle because of its outdatedness.

The headline asked, “Should Dealers Have Their Own Web Page?”

Well, we’ve answered that one. Show me a dealership today lacking its own website, and I’ll show you a boarded-up dealership.

But back in the advent of Internet auto retailing, it was common for a dealership to forego with a web presence and instead rely on an auto maker’s or third-party’s website.

Some service providers even discouraged dealers from creating their own websites.

“We’re trying to drive customers to the dealership, not to the dealership’s web page,” said someone quoted in the story.

Even early-adaptor dealers who had websites back then wondered if it they were worth it. One of them fretted about the ill-effects of too many online shoppers.

He said in that 13-year-old story, “A couple of years ago, people shopping for a car on the Internet were serious shoppers, close to making a purchase decision. Now there’s a lot more tire kicking…because of the increased number of casual Internet users.”

To some extent, it’s still a challenge for dealers to try to determine which Internet shoppers mean business and which are just surfing around or gleaning data from one dealer to enhance negotiations with another.

Despite his skepticism, the doubtful dealer quoted in the story was way ahead of his time.

So was Mike McFall, who tells me the issue of whether dealers should maintain their own websites “was a relevant question” back then.

“I remember meeting with General Motors on that topic,” he says. “They were debating an Internet strategy, and one of the things they discussed was whether dealers should have websites.”

While at AutoNation Inc., McFall developed that dealership chain’s web presence in the late 1990s.

AutoNation was ahead of the curve,” he says. “Its president, Mike Maroone, told me, ‘This Internet is new to me, but if you do it, I’ll get behind you.’ That sort of support is so important to an innovative project.”

In those days, some dealers feared the Internet, perhaps with good reason.

McFall, now president of Black Book Online, recalls, “Some responsible, sane people at that time were predicting the Internet would replace dealers. Put that way, you’ll get dealer push-back.”

Eventually, the debate evolved from whether dealers should have websites to what their websites should offer. The original ones were static and mere e-billboards.

McFall says questions shifted to should dealer websites post prices (a touchy issue at the time), should they list inventory (a perceived problem if a dealer didn’t stock a particular model a shopper showed an interest in) and should they include online appraisals.

Look at a typical dealership website today, and you’ll see that those questions have been answered in the affirmative, too.

Next question? Stay tuned.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com