COLLIER COUNTY — As the popular Cash for Clunkers program hung in limbo on Capitol Hill over the weekend, locally, sales were… good. How good?
“Sales were very, very, very good,” said Wayne Gratkowski, general sales manager of Naples Dodge Chrysler. Gratkowski and other dealers kept the clunker trades coming over the weekend, despite the precarious fiscal predicament of the government program writing the checks.
After a week of relative uncertainty, the Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS), better known as Cash for Clunkers, went into the weekend halfway between salvation and oblivion.
Having most likely burned through its initial $1 billion appropriation just a week after its official July 24 start date, quick action by the U.S. House of Representatives — to the tune of a $2 billion dollar increase – seemed to give the program new life on Friday.
Now it’s up to the Senate to match the move, or to let the program die.
That uncertain situation has led some dealers to stop taking the cars, until the next batch of funding clears Congress, and CNN reported Monday morning that the National Automobile Dealers Association had advised dealerships to put the program on hold.
However, for some dealers for whom Cash for Clunkers amounted to Christmas in July, the response to that warning was clear: Humbug.
“I plan to keep it going ‘til the government announces something,” said Gratkowski, adding, “If there is a freeze they will honor all deals completed before the freeze.”
Gratkowski had good reason for wanting to continue the program. Over weekend, his dealership closed 20 new car deals, 13 of which resulted from the popular program.
“We were very, very busy,” said Cary Vhugen, business manager for Germain Toyota of Naples, who said that his dealership had seen about 30 cars fly off the lot over the weekend.
On the other hand, as some dealers ignored warnings and rumblings about a lack of funds, one local dealer took a more cautious approach.
“We did write deals over the weekend,” said Tim Zellers, president of Tamiami Ford in Naples. However, his dealership has not finalized any of the deals, and will not accept any more Cash for Clunkers trades until he is sure that the money is there.
“As of this morning, we’re waiting on clarification,” said Zellers. He said that foot traffic over the weekend at his location was “probably double” that of a normal weekend.
“I think there’s some urgency out there,” said Zellers, adding that there is also “a lot of confusion.”
All reports seem to indicate that Cash for Clunkers has boosted auto sales at every level, and across the still-struggling industry. Ford Motor Co. announced Monday that, thanks in part to the popularity of the government program, sales were up in July, the first such increase in nearly two years.
July sales of Ford, Lincoln, and Mercury light vehicles rose 1.6 percent from the same month last year. Ford sold 158,354 vehicles, a 2.2 percent increase over last month and a sign that consumer fears that fueled the worst U.S. auto sales slump in a quarter-century may be easing.
“Getting all these people buying cars is great,” said Vhugen, but the paperwork is not. Echoing a common compliant about the administration of the program, Vhugen said that clearing a clunker with the government involves too much red tape and “a lot of different forms” – 15 to 16 separately scanned documents to be more precise.
“The system freezes up sometimes,” said Vhugen. The program, which interacts with dealers primarily through the use of a Web portal, has been dogged by frequent crashes and slow response times from the outset.
However, there are some problems caused by the program that Vhugen and other dealers welcome.
“This past week really sapped inventory,” Vhugen said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report