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End of the road for 81-year car firm

AT the end of the 81-year "marriage," the Isaksons in Hobart, Indiana said goodbye by turning off the lights. The partnership was over. The Chrysler sign went dark.

It was an unceremonious finale to a four-generation bond between one family and one company, but it was not a surprise. Rob Isakson had known for weeks his dealership was on a Chrysler hit list -- the cuts were part of the troubled auto maker's survival strategy.

Still, when the moment arrived, he did not go gently into the night.

"It hurts," he said. "How do you put into words 81 years of your family's blood, sweat and tears? How many times did my father miss some family events ... because the business came first? And all of it is for nothing now."

It has been a wrenching few weeks, beginning with Chrysler's notification in mid-May that the family was losing its franchise. The word came in a form letter. "How insensitive is that?" Isakson asked.

Then came futile efforts -- through calls and e-mails -- to find why they were being dropped, even though they said sales were better than some dealers that survived.

Last week, a judge ruled for Chrysler: the bankrupt company, having sold most of its assets to Fiat SpA, the Italian auto maker, could trim about a quarter of its dealer franchises. Isakson Motor Sales was among the dealers to go. And thus ended a proud family history.

Their ties to Chrysler go back to 1928 when two Isakson brothers who were farmers invested US$5,000 in an exciting new venture: the DeSoto. They opened a showroom, in the heart of what once was booming steel country, at an auspicious-sounding intersection -- Front and Center.

Over nine decades, the names of the cars changed (Imperial, Valiant, Cordoba, Horizon, Duster, Reliant, New Yorker, Road Runner, Challenger, Voyager, PT Cruiser), but the name of the dealership did not. It was the Isaksons. Clarence and Walter. Bill. Rob. Eric and Steve.

Father to son, father to son, selling cars and handing over the keys to one, two, even three generations of customers, making a go of it even in the leanest years.

Tough years

"How many businesses survive their first five years, or the next five?" Rob Isakson asked, huddled in his office with his 83-year-old father, Bill, and his two sons.

"We survived 81 years of ups and downs in this industry. The stock market of 1929 and the Depression ... World War II and rationing, the strike years with the steel mills and we survived, the loan guarantee years, which were tough years ... and we survived that, too.

"And now," he paused, "we're surviving but Chrysler says we're not worth keeping. Am I angry?" he asked, then quickly answered. "You're darn right I am."

GM and Chrysler, once symbols of America's industrial might, filed for bankruptcy. And as part of their get-small strategies, they decided to shrink the number of dealers.

The Isaksons -- who sell only Chryslers and Dodges -- say they can understand cuts. But why punish them? Their sales, they say, have been good (about 205 new cars, 150 used in 2008). They point out they've received high marks from customers. And as far as being a burden, Rob Isakson said that's ridiculous.

"We buy our own cars, every tool ... every part," he said. "What are we doing that's costing Chrysler money? We're doing nothing. All we're doing is creating more market for them. What's wrong with that?"

What has irked the Isaksons even more is the Obama administration's intervention in the auto industry.

"Starting in Washington and going to Detroit, all the way down, I blame everybody for this," said Eric Isakson, Rob's 32-year-old son. "How can someone tell us when we've done everything that we're supposed to do that we can't keep going on? It's a big slap in the face."

The dealers aren't the only ones who will be taking a hit. The National Automobile Dealers Association estimates the GM and Chrysler dealer closings will wipe out more than 100,000 jobs; the average wage is between US$45,000 and US$55,000 a year.

Then there's the domino effect.

"How many insurance company sales people are going to be gone?" Rob Isakson asked. "How many tire stores are going to be closed? How many barber shops, how many restaurants? There's going to be a ripple effect."

Add to that taxes and the gaping holes left by dealers -- many of them family-owned businesses -- who have been mainstays in their communities.

"They're one of the few vestiges of what used to be Main Street America where businesses are locally owned and operated," said John McEleney, chairman of the dealers association. "They're the fabric of the community."


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