Only the Strong Survive

I placed an overdue call to Nat Shulman, a former dealer and long-time Ward's Dealer Business columnist until an infection nearly killed him. He quickly waved off my apologies for not calling more often. We then chatted about this and that, from Oldsmobile's impending demise to the illness that nearly nailed Nat. He and his wife Corky had left their Hawaii home last fall for mainland hopping that

I placed an overdue call to Nat Shulman, a former dealer and long-time Ward's Dealer Business columnist until an infection nearly killed him.

He quickly waved off my apologies for not calling more often. We then chatted about this and that, from Oldsmobile's impending demise to the illness that nearly nailed Nat.

He and his wife Corky had left their Hawaii home last fall for mainland hopping that was supposed to end in New York City, where they planned to see some plays and do the town.

A bladder infection hit him while visiting kin in Colorado. It spread to his already weak legs. It laid him up for months. He nearly died in December, but rallied and recovered enough to return to his beloved home near Honolulu with a view of the ocean and a pool that's now used as part of his rehabilitation.

He's still not mobile enough to resume his volunteer work at a nearby hospital and as a mediator at a local courthouse. But he sounded strong and alert for a guy in his 80s on the mend.

“As soon as I get my darn computer fixed, I'm going to write a column about what happened on that trip, and how it really altered things,” he says. “The point is, it can happen to anybody.”

I asked what he thought of a lugubrious landmark event the week before: the last Oldsmobile, a dark cherry Alero, came off the line in Lansing, MI, ending a 107-year run for General Motors' oldest and once-hearty brand.

Riding in the commemorative car was George Nahas, a single-point Oldsmobile dealer in Tavares, FL, and chairman of the national Olds dealer council, a group that these days is counting the days.

I met Nahas in 2002 at the Indianapolis 500 where a Bravada was the first SUV to serve as an Indy pace car and the last of 11 Oldsmobiles to do so.

Nahas was displeased that GM pulled the plug on Olds. I've met few Olds dealers who weren't unhappy about that, who didn't see an option and who weren't at least a little bitter.

That's despite a chunk of GM's nearly $1 billion phase-out costs going to compensate Olds dealers who once were 2,800 strong. It's not just about the money.

The last-out Alero headed to downtown Lansing's R.E. Olds Transportation Museum, named for hometown hero Ransom E. Olds, founder of Oldsmobile and creator of the world's first automotive assembly line. (Henry Ford improved it, he didn't invent it.)

Meanwhile, there are many non-museum pieces for the dwindling ranks of Olds dealers to sell yet. The division's days' supply was 59 at April's end, compared with 37 at the end of March and 38 in April 2003.

“A series of bad decisions over the years ruined Olds,” says Nat, who for years ran Best Chevrolet outside Boston. Son Scott still does. “Anyway, it's good to see Chevy making something of a comeback. But I'm still waiting for Saturn to make a profit.”

Oldsmobile once did that handily for GM, before the steep decline. The brand tallied more than 1 million in annual sales for four straight years in the 1980s. It was selling a third of that in 2000, when GM said that's it.

Looking back, an early trouble sign occurred in the 1970s and into the 1980s as foreign-based auto makers — most notably Honda — started targeting Oldsmobile dealers to dual with, says veteran auto journalist David C. Smith, retired editor of Ward's AutoWorld.

The importers went after them because “they were A) damn good, B) damn vulnerable or C) both,” says Smith.

Nat recalls being offered a Honda franchise back then. A World War II veteran, he fought the Japanese in the Pacific. He was still a bit bitter about that when the Honda offer came. So he turned it down.

“It was one of the stupidest things I ever did,” he says.

Not just because it turned out to be a bad business decision. It was a decision made for the wrong reason, he says in retrospect.

“Since moving to Hawaii, I've met a lot of Japanese people, a lot of Japanese-Americans. They're a presence here. They're among the nicest people in the world.”

So is Nat.

TAGS: Dealers Retail
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