Crisis on Dealers' Row

Car dealers are fighting for survival, and maybe an upper hand, as business turns cold.

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The freeze
I recently walked down Northern Boulevard, the center of auto sales in the New York City borough of Queens. There I found varying degrees of fear, hope and anger among dealers whose livelihood depends on selling people cars. The problem is - no one's buying them.

"I used to be proud of this country," said one dealer, who did not wish to be identified by name. A recent immigrant, he now managed a small lot. "I used to shout wherever I went, all over the world, how great America is. The land of opportunity. You can achieve whatever you want. Now, look at all this."

His dealership was empty, not only of customers, but of staff. No one greeted me as I entered because the receptionist had already been laid off - so had most of the salespeople.

When I found the manager in a back office, he first said he couldn't help me. But then he talked for about a half hour about the poor state of his business. Sales have fallen 80% from last year. He used to have 20 sellers on staff; now he has five.

He talked about the independent used-car lots on Northern Boulevard that were shuttered and for sale. Real estate agents used to want $200,000 up front for a lot like that, he said. Now they're not moving at all.

The prospect of major auto manufacturers getting $25 billion from a government bailout struck him as a pathetic waste. "Why give that money to them?" he asked. "Give that to the people. Give it to us, the small-business people."

He blamed the banks, which had once financed the cars he sold, for causing the crash that now threatened to wipe him out. He said lenders recklessly gave auto loans to buyers who clearly weren't able, or willing, to pay their debts.

"I would say, 'Why in the world are you financing this guy!'" Now those same lenders won't write loans for the very few customers that do come through his doors.


NEXT: James Park
Last updated December 26 2008: 9:02 AM ET
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