Special Report

2011 Ward's Dealer 500

This is the 25th year for the Ward’s Dealer 500, and a lot has changed since we first started our annual list of the top dealers in the U.S.

For one thing, there were more cars to sell. The last decade marked some of the highest volume sales for the auto industry with some years exceeding 17 million. But in 1986, car sales were a strong 16.3 million, compared with 11.5 million last year.

Back then, auto makers and others worried that overcapacity eventually would become a very real issue. It sure did.

In 1986, Oldsmobile sold 1 million units a year, Pontiac 840,000. Today, those General Motors brands are mere memories. In February of 1986, Hyundai started selling cars in the U.S., beginning with a single model, the Excel.

Today, the South Korean auto maker has one of the hottest brands around.

Also in that year, auto makers began using customer satisfaction indexes, not just as scorecards for dealers to chart their progress, but as a major factor in determining what dealers would get new franchises and which would get the latest hot products.

Those included what turned out as not-so-hot sellers, such as the Cadillac Allante (a lovely convertible despite its lack of commercial success) and the Chrysler-Maserati Q coupe (a K-car in disguise that totally flopped).

Thirty million PCs were in use in 1986 in the U.S., but the Internet was slow, cumbersome and limited. No one back then considered using it to help sell cars.

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The way we compile the Ward’s Dealer 500 has changed dramatically. Originally, dealers would mail their filled-out forms. Some tech-savvy dealers would fax them. We’d then manually enter the numbers.

“It took hours and hours,” recalls Mac Gordon, who has written for the magazine since the days when it originally was called Auto Age. “Joe Crown, the publisher back then, burned the midnight oil proof-reading the list.”

Compiling the Ward’s Dealer 500 remains a major project for our data department, but modern software eliminates much of the grunt work. Dealers electronically submit their forms that automatically flow into a digital spread sheet.

Something has stayed constant over the quarter-century we’ve published the big list. The dealers on it consistently rank among the best in the business. They are pros who follow traditional best practices, yet are nimble enough to adapt to changing times and markets.

Like the vast majority of dealers, large and small, they remain committed to serving customers, participating in community activities, executing business strategies and selling lots of cars and trucks to happy owners.

The 500 dealers on this year’s list sold 1,327,638 new and used cars and took in revenues totalling $42,816,466,261.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com