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Car dealers collapse as sales drive off a cliff

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Monday, December 01, 2008

CarDealers Hundreds of car dealerships across Oregon are closing their doors because of slumping demand.

STATEWIDE At first glance, the car lot in outer Southeast Portland looks like all the others nearby, plentifully stocked with “Dealer’s Specials” and “Fresh Start Financing” deals. But while the merchandise is still on display, the business is history, or at least in hibernation.

Thirteen car lots within two miles of this shuttered business have canceled their licenses in 2008, according to Department of Motor Vehicle records. Across Oregon, 270 dealerships have gone under or on hiatus over the past year.

Sky-high gas prices followed by a severe slump in consumer confidence have sent new car sales to their lowest level since World War II. While it is harder to track used car sales in the “EZ Financing” side of town, the same fundamentals apply, and the blight is spreading. Just down the street, another lonely herd of oversized SUVs lies out of reach behind a padlocked chain-link gate.

Used-car lots aren’t the only ones taking a hit. Oregon’s largest auto dealer and third-largest public company, Medford-based Lithia Motors, is losing money and attempting to trim 29 stores from its 13-state empire. Its stock has sunk 75% over the past year.

Major new-car dealerships from Brookings Harbor Ford on the southern coast to Dick Hannah Ford near the Rose Garden in Portland have closed, and more are expected to follow as the recession deepens. One of the state’s oldest dealerships, Gibson Motor Company, which sold Model T Fords when it opened in 1921, closed in November in Junction City. Motor vehicle employment in Oregon is down 14.5%, or 4,000 jobs, from a year ago.

Greg Remensperger, executive vice president of the Oregon Auto Dealers Association, says sales are down 30%. “People who have been in the business for 30, 40 years are saying they’ve never seen anything like this,” he says.

The dealers association has been running ads arguing that it is a great time to buy because financing is available and prices have dropped. The Kelly Blue Book, the benchmark standard for auto pricing has devalued suggested prices an unprecedented six times over the past four months.

“The minute we see one or two rays of sunshine there will be a pent-up bunch of people ready to go out and buy a car,” Remensperger says. Until then dealerships will be “hunkering down to make it through.”                                                         


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