Local Car Dealers Accelerate Their Sales

Three years after the federal bailout, two American-made dealerships in Niles and Glenview are making a comeback, with sales around 20 percent higher. The challenge is to sell to the young. A foreign-maker dealership is holding its own.

(Part One of two parts)

General Motors knows it has longtime loyalists like Stewart Gartner.

While waiting at the service department of Jennings Chevrolet in Glenview, Gartner said he owns a 2010 Cadillac and a 2007 Pontiac. Down at a second home in Florida, Gartner, of Wilmette, tools around in a 1990 Cadillac with 120,000 miles on the odometer.

Adding to his American-made roadsters is a 2004 Chrysler Sebring. The only foreign-made vehicle in his world is a 2008 Toyota he bought for his daughter because she liked its looks.

In the next seat over in the waiting room was Morris Bicker of Niles.

“I’ve never owned a foreign car,” he said. “I’m a Buick type of guy.” Bicker pointed to his World War II veterans cap as reasoning for not buying a Japanese-made car.

Sitting alongside Bicker was a woman who declined to identify herself, but who waxed nostalgic about her 1967 Chevy. The ol’ reliable still started 150,000 miles into its dotage on the coldest morning (27 below zero Fahrenheit) in Chicago history in 1985, while every other motorist on her block helplessly looked under opened hoods and cars frozen in their parking spaces.

American carmakers know they have a lock on these older customers. They need a lot more potential buyers like college-age Lisa Schneider and father Brad Schneider, both of Lincolnwood, as they shopped for a new car days earlier at Golf Mill Ford in Niles.

“We’re looking at four different cars and this is one of them,” the younger Schneider said of the Fords in the showroom. “Maybe if it’s the better car (she’d buy). They have a car that has good gas mileage.” Said her father: “Five years ago, we’d would have looked at a foreign car.”

Double-digit sales hikes for all domestics

Apparently, the Lisa Schneiders of the world are returning in decent-enough numbers to dealers of American-made cars.  Overall U.S. car sales roles 10.2 percent  in 2011, according to DetroitBureau.com. Chrysler led the way with a 26 percent increase. Ford sales jumped 17 percent, while GM increased 14 percent.

Those numbers have led to smiles on the faces for general managers Mario Sosnowski of Golf Mill Ford and Jim Walsh of Jennings Chevrolet. Confident in their products, they did not hang crepe in the worst of the economic downturn in 2008-09, when GM and Chrysler went bankrupt and eventually received government bailouts – so much so that GM was nicknamed “Government Motors.”

Three years later, the comebacks of the domestic carmakers have been so strong President Obama used them as a highlight of his State of the Union address. Closer to home, Sosnowski and Walsh find themselves in a strange position: as the auto companies keep careful inventory controls, they don't always have cars on the lots for every buyer.

“We don’t have the product we need,” Walsh said. “They’ve (most auto companies) decided they’re going to keep their production very conservative. Unfortunately, if we don’t have it on site, we have to buy the car from another dealership.  They don’t want to be rebate-driven if you’ve built too many, and that’s a good business model.”

The tight supply is not hurting the two dealerships. Jennings exceeded its 20-percent annual sales increase goal the past two years, while Golf Mill Ford reported a 22 percent increase in 2011.

Meanwhile, a local dealer of foreign-made cars is doing nicely as well.

Bruce Berger, General Manager of Star Nissan in Niles, said his dealership has been holding its own.

“We’re up a little bit, not drastic,” he said. “We didn’t hit rock bottom like GM and Ford. We didn’t drop off like they did. We’ve been consistent. We’ve been able to stay above water. I’m extremely grateful.”

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