State

Cash for Clunkers rolling to a stop

For old gas guzzlers, it's back to being a beater. At 5 p.m. today, the federal stimulus program that put the cash — and the cachet — behind clunkers officially closes. But most local dealers put the brakes on Sunday. They needed time to do paperwork, and they were out of cars.

"We're sold out. My inventory's down to nothing," said Alex Gonzalez, sales manager of Smith Chevrolet Cadillac in Turlock on Sunday morning. "I'll have nothing for the next two months, but it's OK!"

Gonzalez estimates that he made about 30 deals and got additional traffic and sales from the $3 billion Cash for Clunkers program, which put the nation's car sales into overdrive. As of early Friday, nearly 500,000 vehicles had been sold nationwide under the one-month program.

"It definitely 'steroid-ed' the market. Successful chaos," dealership owner John Gardner said Sunday. His string of Central Valley Automotive dealerships on north McHenry Avenue did at least 180 deals under the program before running out of qualifying vehicles. "We could have sold 40 more cars if we had the product," Gardner said.

"It's a good problem to have," added sales manager Danny Perez.

"We're slammed. It depleted our entire inventory," Modesto Toyota Sales Manager Ashur Paulus said with a grin Sunday. Behind him, seen through the glass showroom wall, customers wandered in the gray expanse of a nearly empty front lot.

No one on the lot or signing documents in cubicles at the dealership was using the program, but all said they got to thinking about a new car because of the Cash for Clunkers frenzy.

Even high-end dealers saw traffic and sales gains.

"Our Mercedes line had no vehicle that qualified (under the program), but we had eight to 10 deals with Volvos," Modesto European salesman Chris Heslin said.

Don Winter of Ripon was the last to cash in on Cash for Clunkers at Central Valley Dodge/Hyundai in Modesto on Sunday afternoon.

After 10 years and 210,000 commuter miles, Winter said goodbye to his 1999 Mitsu-bishi Montero and hello to a sparkling white 2009 Honda Accent. The Montero's 20 freeway miles to the gallon cost him about $80 a week in fuel, Winter figured. He expects to get 30 miles per gallon from the Accent.

The Accent met another key criteria. "The major thing was the golf clubs have to fit in the trunk," said Winter, who works as a golf pro.

Worth more this way

Cash for Clunkers brought him in, Winter said, estimating that his trade-in was worth about $500. As a clunker, it brought him $4,500.

While sales clinked in the cash box, however, the program's administration was declared a clunker. Dealers said excessive paperwork, changing requirements and a dismal reimbursement record by the government were problems.

"Each car takes about an hour to process. Our finance guys are working longer hours than even we are," Perez said.

Modesto Toyota controller Sue Madden said she submitted about 10 scanned documents per clunker through a government Web site daily from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m. or after 11 p.m. to avoid extensive delays because of volume. Madden said she's received seven payments for the dealership's approximately 168 claims, which puts her ahead of the curve.

"They're at 3 percent return, which I should have about four or five so far, so I'm doing pretty good," Madden said.

Early on, she gave her sales force a checklist of insurance and other documents needed for every buyer. "I'm the clunker cop," she said and laughed.

Even with Madden's diligence, Modesto Toyota is waiting for at least $700,000 in Cash for Clunker reimbursements.

Central Valley Automotive has received one payment and is owed more than $800,000, Gardner said.

His dealerships have a corral of more than 180 doomed clunkers. But they won't be destroyed until the government money arrives, just in case.

"(Delayed payment) is definitely a problem for the smaller dealerships that are less capitalized. It's been a total administrative problem," Gardner said.

Bee staff writer Nanette Austin can be reached at naustin@modbee.com.

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