Up Front: May 2009

Mr. Martin’s wild ride

This recession business might not be so bad after all. At least, not for guys like me. That notion began when I got an e-mail a few weeks ago. “Would you,” it began, “be interested in trading your 2006 Mini Cooper S?” I took one look and thought, “Are you crazy?” The thing was brand new — only three model years old — sporty, fast, fun and 37 mpg on trips. I read the e-mail again. It seemed to have a dare-you tone. “Sure,” I fired back. “See if you can persuade me.” Five minutes later, I got a reply. “We’ll see what we can do.”

We exchanged notes a few more times, and several days later at lunchtime, I found myself driving along Independence Boulevard — Charlotte’s car-dealer row. I hadn’t been out that way since last summer, when I took my car in for service and found the Mini Cooper lot empty — sold out. It’s a popular car. A nice salesman said they were taking orders. Maybe they would get some in the fall.

This time, as I drove along, I saw things were different. Several issues ago, I had written about the auto industry and car sales. Interviewing analysts in Detroit, I learned that about 900 dealerships nationwide — 25 in North Carolina — had closed last year. I became attuned to car-industry news. Nationwide, auto sales might not break 10 million this year, the worst in 30 years or so. Recently, halfway through the 2009 model year, I noticed a newspaper ad by a local dealer offering 40% off 2008 models.

The farther out Independence I drove, the wider my eyes grew. There were several vacant car lots, and in this case, grass in the pavement didn’t mean they were waiting for the next shipment. Or there was the opposite: Unsold Hummers spilled into parking lots of businesses on both sides. When I got to the Mini Cooper dealer, the lot was crowded. The appraiser looked at my car, agreed it was pristine, then made an obligatory low-ball offer. Obligingly, I stomped off in a huff. But inside the showroom, my car gene kicked in.

I was breathing heavily. All that shiny paint, the smell of fresh rubber, of leather upholstery. I’ve been driving since I was 12, except for that time, when I was 14, there was an incident involving my dad’s Ford, some fence posts and a telephone pole. I walked until I was 16. But behind the wheel since, I often make Mr. Toad, the frog from The Wind in the Willows whose eyes bulge and head spins at the sight of a beloved “motor car,” look positively rational.

At this moment, parked outside is a 2009 Mini Cooper S, with Chili Red paint so loud my wife claims it keeps the neighbors awake at night and scares the cat. The dealership gave a little; I gave a little. After the obligatory horse-trading, all done by e-mail, I traded my three-year-old model for a 2009 with a sticker price nearly $3,000 higher than the old one, for $5,600 difference. A pretty good deal, if you ask me, especially since my old car needed new tires, which would have cost about $1,000.

As a car nut, I’m of mixed emotions. Carmakers have their warts, and many of the industry’s woes are self-imposed. Bad times for it turned into a good deal for me, but more than 30,000 people work in dealerships across the state, and car and truck sales make up 18% of retail sales. So, it’s a little bittersweet. But I have to go now. Mr. Toad and my new Mini are waiting.