Loss of car dealerships threatens way of life

SANDY LAKE, Pa. (AP) — Upset that General Motors was planning to “wind down” the dealership where they had loyally bought their Chevys for years, schoolteacher Marie Kohr and her husband, Kevin, went to GM with a message: “You are killing America.”

The Kohrs included with their letter a copy of a high school yearbook ad that Walker Chevrolet bought in tiny Sandy Lake in 1937 — a purchase the dealership has made every year since.

“Herein lies the problem,” the Kohrs wrote. “Our local dealer has been unfairly deemed worthy of being closed. ... Apparently, loyalty is not important to you.”

General Motors Corp. has announced plans to pull 90 franchises in Pennsylvania, and Chrysler Group LLC more than 50 — the most in any state for both companies — and along with them, a slice of Americana.

New-car dealers in Pennsylvania record fewer sales per dealer than many other states. To blame are declining sales and the large number of small-volume shops in a vast state composed largely of small towns isolated from one another by mountains.

The failing companies are often targeting lower-volume, older franchises like Bob Kaltenbaugh’s brick-and-cinderblock Walker showroom on Main Street in Sandy Lake, a town of 743 people in Mercer County.

Kaltenbaugh’s grandfather opened Walker Chevrolet in 1933, and sales have declined slowly but steadily since Kaltenbaugh sold 200 new and used vehicles the year he bought out his uncle: 1984.

Still, his customers consistently “buy American,” mostly Impalas and pickups. Kaltenbaugh, who still plans to sell used vehicles after GM pulls out, figures the company should be happy that he can count on selling 60 new vehicles this year, plus 75 used.

Kaltenbaugh says his customers will have to drive 15 to 20 miles to another GM dealer, and he is puzzled by the company’s decision. So are some experts who say closing dealers won’t automatically boost sales at remaining outlets.

Paul Taylor, the chief economist of the National Automobile Dealer Association, said GM and Chrysler wrongly assume most customers won’t switch brands if they’re forced to drive to another town.

“I’m dating a beautiful girl. I’m head over heels in love with her. But let’s move her to the next city and make me pass by three other beautiful girls who may want to have a relationship with me,” Taylor said. “They [GM and Chrysler] assume the relationship with the first girl will be better.”

GM is blaming dealers for the company’s problems, Kaltenbaugh said.

“Well, I’m not bankrupt,” he said. “They forgot that little detail. I guess I have a hard time figuring out how I hurt them.”

The car manufacturers want fewer, larger, more modern dealerships so that each sells and services more cars efficiently.