By on January 27, 2009

The current recession has done a fair job of turning the world upside down. Instead seeing tragedy repeated as farce, we get a mega-dose of farce with the tragedy hanging over it all. Exhibit A:a letter intercepted by Automotive News reveals that FIAT CEO Sergio Marchionne and a team of Fiat senior executives visited Chrysler HQ on Saturday morning. “This was a very positive meeting,” Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli wrote. “This potential alliance is very promising, but getting there is totally contingent on meeting the viability plan required of us by the U.S. Treasury.” So the FIAT deal depends on meeting the viability plan, which depends on the Fiat deal? Chrysler has stopped making sense.

Chrysler is struggling– thrashing about some might say– to find a way to justify its continued existence. Not to its customers (real or imagined). To the legislators who are now entirely responsible for its day-to-day survival. To that end, Chrysler has told tales of a hook-up with Nissan( to build a small car and/or rebadging the Ram to replace the Nissan Titan). There’s also been talk of a deal with China’s Chery to import Hornets (or something). Just before the bailout hearings, Chrysler trotted-out a fleet of prototype electric vehicles. Did I forget possible tie-up with BMW? Or PSA? Someone should.

The FIAT hook-up is a charade: the last act of a desperate company. As Justin pointed out yesterday, this is the sort of development that would be laughed out of a producer’s office. Bringing in small cars from FIAT is somehow going to rescue Chrysler? How? Making money off of small cars is not impossible in North America. But it’s close. More importantly, how are 150k cute little Italian job MINI’s going to prop up a company with a 1.5m vehicle market footprint?

How bad an idea is this? Not too many years back GM paid FIAT $2b NOT to take them over (added to the $2b already “invested”). Now granted, this doesn’t exactly make the list of 100 greatest business decisions ever. Not even the top 1000. But while GM’s guys may not know marketing from muesli, they know finance (they’ve been known to squeeze a nickel till it screams). If they decided paying off was better than taking on Fiat’s baggage, there must have been some issues. The success of the new Cinquecento made this look doubly foolish, but don’t pop the bubbly just yet.

FIAT got the 500 and derivatives essentially “for free”. The next big thing will have to be paid out of pocket, and the guys from Torino have some serious debts to work off. Right now FIAT has 5.4b Euros of debt and a bond rating one step above “junk.” They may not be as bad off as Chrysler, but they share a very similar boat. And they’re playing a similar game: telling their backers THIS IS HOW WE DO IT.

FIAT doesn’t have much presence outside Europe (certainly not in the “major” markets). Bad as the American market looks, things across the pond look just as grim, and recovery seems further off. Getting some North American volume sounds like a winner, but expanding into a down market is like cutting production in an expanding one. Again, for both playas, appearance is all.

The biggest obstacle to this alliance is time. Federalizing and/or designing small cars for the U.S. will take [taxpayer] money, and money is time. How long will the American taxpayer be willing to wait for these Italian-derived vehicles? So far, the meter says $4b. Soon, it’ll be another $3b. That’s $7b over four months– without spending a dime on building Fiats. And it doesn’t include the money spent on GMAC or Chrysler Financial or Department of Energy retooling loans.

At some point, the American taxpayer will look at the meter and says “You know what, I think I’ll walk.”

Chrysler is hoping against hope that United States representatives, senators and the newly-elected president are stupido. Meanwhile, absent anything like a genuinely credible “viability” plan, Chrysler CEO Bob Nardelli is doing what the scourge of Home Depot does best: cut…. in the name of FIAT!

Nardelli’s letter told employees that Chrysler’s got to do what a Chrysler’s got to do “to make the alliance work.” He’s seeking price reductions from suppliers [on the brink of bankruptcy]. He wants them to freeze material cost increases for 2009. At the same time, Nardelli’s minions told dealers at the National Automobile Dealers Association convention that the automaker’s reducing dealer margins and reviewing dealer payment terms. No more free gas in the tank of new cars, either.

All this while the FIAT chief swans around Auburn Hills like it was 1996. it isn’t. And it never will be again. The only “alliance” that Chrysler will realize will be a shotgun wedding with General Motors. Chry-Fi? Think American Leyland. Where’s Pagliacci when you need him?

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34 Comments on “Editorial: Fiat Chief Visits Chrysler HQ...”


  • avatar
    fiatjim

    I know fact-checking is a thing of the past, but I expected better here. Two bones to pick: I suspect the Fiat your boss had was an X1/9, not an X1-7, and it probably wasn’t the only car in history to lose its muffler. Second, Fiat is based in Turin, not Milan. Alfa Romeo is based in Milan.

  • avatar
    midelectric

    Did you mean to put up a picture of an X1/9? Cause that ain’t it. Not even the right brand. The Fiat hate is getting pretty tiring, seeing as none of the TTAC staff have driven one in probably 30 years. If you have, please post a review so we can have some basis for discussion relevant to the current decade.

  • avatar
    fiatjim

    Oh, and as midelectric pointed out, that’s an Alfa Romeo Junior Zagato. Teriffic car, and most definitely not from the Fiat era.

  • avatar
    kid cassady

    Like the other editorial, I think this is entirely missing the point about FIAT’s percieved market share in the United States when it arrives on our shores.

    FIAT left America 25 years ago, and was a small-scale brand here, even then. When they return with the 500, the market of people that will be interested in them – early 20s to 30s, upper middle class, hipster pretentions – will not have ever heard of FIAT.

    The cute, zippy nature of the 500 combined with an attractive price will overcome any Consumer Reports articles on them for this group. It may or may not be enough to reach sales goals, but from the tone of this and previous articles you make it sound like a total of five will sell before the dealerships shutter.

    Also, keep in mind that brand perception – the faint glimmer of it that still exists for FIAT in the US – is not immutable. Remember the Hyundai Excel?

  • avatar

    Never underestimate the staying power of a reputation– both good and bad.

    Hyundai has changed its rep after more than a decade and billions of dollars. Chrysler doesn’t have the time and it’s my money!

  • avatar
    HPE

    “Remember, not too many years back GM paid FIAT $2b NOT to take them over (added to the $2b already “invested”).”

    I assume the second part of this comment refers to the notion that GM paid Fiat that amount as part of the original 2000 deal. I have seen this point crop up recently in a number of places and am at a loss to explain where it has come from, aside from that being the approximate value of the stakes. Everything I read at the time, and subsequently, has stated unequivocally that it was a direct equity swap (each company taking a stake in the other), with no money changing hands.

    “Now granted, this doesn’t exactly make the list of 100 greatest business decisions ever. Not even the top 1000. But GM’s guys may not know marketing from muesli, but they know finance (they’ve been know to squeeze a nickel till it screams). If they decided paying off was better than taking on FIAT’s baggage, there must have been some issues. The success of the new Cinquecento made this look doubly foolish, but don’t pop the bubbly just yet.”

    You are correct that GM gets some things right, only I think the angle you’ve picked isn’t the main one that is applicable to the Fiat deal. Contrary to popular opinion, I actually think GM screwed Fiat properly. The put option was an entirely deliberate inclusion, and Fiat’s payback for a whole bunch of crappy clauses lined up on GM’s side of the ledger in the original deal. The most important of these was a stipulation on GM’s part that Fiat could not strike any outside alliances as long as the deal was in play. So as long as the deal existed, Fiat could not ally with any of the following in any capacity and engineer a recovery. The list of alliances they have struck since 2005 includes, but is not limited to:

    Tata
    Suzuki
    Ford
    Severstal
    Chery
    Chrysler

    None of which would be on the cards if the GM agreement was still around. In other words, what gets overlooked in most analyses of the Fiat-GM deal is that the only reason Fiat has been able to recover somewhat is because it broke the alliance in the first place. Note also that Fiat engineers were horrified at the quality of GM’s engineering in the joint alliance projects and spent considerable time and money upgrading various components to what they regarded as acceptable standards.

    “FIAT got the 500 and derivatives essentially “for free”. The next big thing will have to be paid for out of pocket, and the guys from Milan have some serious debts to work off. Right now FIAT has 5.4b Euros of dept and a bond rating one step above “junk”.”

    No. What Fiat got was the latest in a string of get-out-of-jail-free cards – or, simply put, time. The GM payoff basically gave Fiat solvency to last 12-18 months post-divorce – in practical terms this was how long Marchionne had to work his miracle. If the Grande Punto – a car basically developed by the time the partnership with GM was dissolved – didn’t sell, Fiat was dead no matter what. But a Fiat employee told me just prior to the Punto’s launch that the word around the traps was that Fiat had 13 months solvency left. At that point, Fiat’s debt was deep – and I mean deep – into junk bond status. One step above junk status is an achievement and a half, especially if you look at the list of companies that descend that far and don’t make it back up.

    “Getting some North American volume sounds like a winner, but expanding into a down market is like cutting production in an expanding one.”

    With respect, this makes no sense. Expanding in a market in which one is starting from zero is expansion nonetheless, merely more difficult.

    The bottom line to this deal is that Fiat is indeed playing the US government as spineless. Since I’m not American, that fact doesn’t bother me unduly. I find TTAC’s resolute anti-government line tiring, though. Government and big business are intertwined, it’s just a fact of life, and railing against it with the fervour of a zealot just seems like a waste of effort to me. After all, they didn’t reckon GM’s health was linked to that of broader America for nothin’. If this deal has even half a chance of working, it’s probably worth throwing a few scraps out there to be honest. A liquidation of even Chrysler, let alone GM, is gonna get real ugly real fast and the taxpayer will end up holding the tab regardless. You guys said it yourselves – there’s no way the taxpayer is gonna get off scot-free on this implosion, so preventing direct taxpayer funds being appropriated is really a killer Pyrrhic victory. By the time this is over you’re gonna wish it was a mere $7 billion.

  • avatar
    Geotpf

    It doesn’t matter much if the latest Dodge subcompact is actually a Fiat under the skin; it’s still going to say “Dodge” on the hood. You average motorist doesn’t know that a Aveo is a Daewoo and a Vibe is a Toyota; why would they know that these things are Fiats? I don’t think reputation will be the problem here.

    The problems here are too little time and money, and the question of whether or not the Fiatodges will actually be any good.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    The next big thing will have to be paid for out of pocket, and the guys from Milan have some serious debts to work off

    Technically, isn’t it Fabbrica Italiana Automobili Torino. If they were in Milan, it would be FIAM.

  • avatar
    akear

    Why doesn’t Chrysler just produce their own small car. When you import products from other companies you risk becoming like WalMart, and you become nothing more than a marketing company.

    Does Chrysler have any heart left for engineering and design?

  • avatar
    tedward

    I’ve been very skeptical of the utility of a fiat partnership with chrysler but there is one little thing that brings me hope for it…the ever-increasing milage standards. If Fiat can swing an operation cranking out small cars in the states they might just be positioned to provide product to some of the major manufacturers who haven’t invested in a well-rounded small car lineup (hmmm, almost all of them).

    Assuming that this latest dust-up between Cali and the EPA isn’t a one-off occurance it could well become uncomfortable to sell land-yacht sized “mid-sized sedans” as your bread and butter. An available line-up of Fiat parts might be the cheapest decent-quality source of cars that are available and ready for US production…especially if Fiat has tons of room in abandoned Chrysler factories to expand.

    I still don’t see how Fiat is going to help Chrysler by the way, time is just too short for that, but I could see Fiat taking a few factories and dealers and thriving on its own.

  • avatar

    My bad on the Milan reference.

    Text amended.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    My bad on the Milan reference.

    That’s cool. I have extended family in Turin, and they probably wish Fiat was in Milan on occasion. If you’d said Juventus was Milanese, you’d be pushing up daisies.

  • avatar
    John Horner

    I like Fiats. There, I said it! In fact, my small collection of older, not very valuable cars includes a 1986 Bertone/Fiat X1/9 which I still enjoy driving. Luckily I live in Northern California where rust is a minor concern. The X1/9 is a wonderful little car. Nothing puts a grin on my face like tossing that little thing around a winding road.

    A well thought out alliance between Fiat and a healthy US based company could work. My concern is the lack of time and the lack of management competence on the Chrysler side.

  • avatar
    Kurt.

    I don’t think that addressing a supposed TTAC bias against FIAT is the point. The authors point is that FIAT and Chrysler will make poor bed fellows. IF Chryco was to bring FIATs over and sell them as FIATs, MAYBE they would sell a few cars and MAYBE with the assistance of FIAT’s small car experience, future Chryslers might be competitive in the limited market. But to bring the FIAT over, build it in Mexico, and sell it as a Dodge will not (in many peoples minds) pull Chrysler out of the hole they dug for themselves.

    You could skip the whole of the article and just read the last sentance to get the point.

  • avatar
    hazard

    I don’t see why Fiat would want to be tangled up with Chrysler, unless they are trying to peek into the books (which are otherwise closed since the company is a private LLC) to see what can be acquired once Chrysler gos Chap. 7. Or maybe they are hoping that if Chrysler gets more federal funds, they can enter the US market. They have nothing to lose, sure, but I’m not sure if they have anything to gain either.

    Btw, I think the Feds will let Chrysler go to liquidation. Look at it, letting Chrysler go makes sense even from the bailout perspective. Here’s why:

    1. There is overcapacity. Someone needs to go. They are the smallest. Least workers, smallest market share, crappiest products. Eliminating a sickly Chrysler makes GM and Ford stronger in the long run.

    2. Since Chrysler in this way is expendable, it is the perfect scapegoat, the perfect helpless kid for the teacher to practice his discipline on. Obama will “call” on the loans. He’ll say the Feds already bailed Chrysler out once, and now given them more money but their plans just don’t cut it. He’ll appeal to rational use of public money, to the free market, say he’s following the letter of the law that approved the funds in the first place. He’ll win back some of the anti-bailout crowd and make it look as if the gov’t is serious about the auto industry. Of course we know the Feds will keep feeding GM and if necessary Ford tons of cash since they are “too big to fail” but the public doesn’t know that exactly, to them ChryCo is still one of the “Big 3″. In the end he’ll make sure the fed loans are top seniority and recoup some money after Chrysler’s assets are liquidated, and the public left with the impression that the Feds tried to save Chrysler but it just wasn’t meant to be (remember in politics “doing something” is often more important than the results). It will be an excellent PR exercise.

    3. Letting Chrysler go should send shills down the spines of GM and Ford and make them obedient. Well, not really for much longer than like a week, but the public will have that perception and will think Obama is keepin’ them in line.

    4. The chaos resulting after Chrysler’s liquidation will be the perfect justification for the bailouts. OMG! Look at what is happening! Tens of thousands out of work, Chinese auto makers packing up US plants and shipping them away! The MSM will have a frenzy. Surely anyone suggesting GM just go bankrupt after that will be thought a maniac by the public at large. “Do something!”

    So what happens to Chrysler LLC?

    Well the Ram (Tundra) plants will be acquired by Nissan, the minivan (Routan) plants by VW. This will keep some people employed. These 2 will also buy the rights to say things like “based on the award-winning Chrysler minivan series” or “with Dodge Ram DNA” in their advertising, trying to salvage the good bits of Chrysler’s reputation without actually having to deal with Chrysler’s reputation. Neither will want the Dodge brand itself.

    Jeep will be acquired by some big automaker. Maybe Daimler. Or BMW. But they will kill production, and leave the brand dead for a while, then resurrect it in about 5 years as a luxury division with an all hybrid/EV lineup. The rebirth of the SUV, yadda yadda yadda. The economy will be better then and Jeep completely redesigned and divorced in the public mind from Chrysler. Brand resurrections happen all the time, especially with brands that have traction. Jeep is one of them.

    Chrysler and Dogde brands, no one will want those. Some automaker like Daimler or Ford in the end might buy them for funny money just to make sure no one makes cars called that again.

    The rest of Chrysler will meet the fate of Rover. The plants and IP will be bought by some Chinese automaker. Dongfeng 300Cs and cars that look like the Jeeps of yesteryear but have a Chinese nameplate will be sold on third world market for a few more years.

  • avatar
    menno

    hazard, I like your thinking. It’s just that we have knuckle-dragging, sub-moronic imbeciles running the entire show from Washington DC, and have had for some while now; they apparently didn’t take any notice that central planning didn’t work all too well for the Soviets, East Germans, Romanians, communist Chinese, Vietnamese, Yugoslavs, etc etc.

    So I suspect Washington DC WON’T kill Chrysler for that reason. So that’s a polite rebuttal to point 1 (which I also agree should be done).

    Point two – well, I suspect B.O. won’t call the loans; he is a socialist after all, and is already throwing around money like a drunken sailor (money that not only isn’t his in the first place, but money which will have to be “generated” out of “nothing” – in past times we’d have said “printing presses” but you get the idea). Not that the prior administration was any smarter – just sub-moronic imebeciles with a different perspective.

    I suspect that Chrysler will either entirely close down under Chapter 7 when some supplier(s) finally say “enough ALREADY!” and pull the plug by not sending parts (because they aren’t getting any frickin’ money). No amount of propping up will do a darned thing if you can’t get transmission parts, windshields or tires supplied to the plants to make cars nobody wants to buy anyway.

    Remember, the ONLY customers that the car manufacturers “truly” have? Are CAR DEALERS. Chrysler’s “buyers” – aren’t (if they’re smart). Most of them are either smart – or bankrupt. Hence, Chrysler’s time is – very short.

    You cannot buy a car directly from the factory in the United States any more, as you still could just after World War II. (For example, Kaiser-Fraser had a “factory delivery program” near their main plant in Willow Run Michigan, and apparently, Mercedes Benz still runs such an operation in Stuttgart Germany).

  • avatar
    hazard

    menno, you very well could be correct. Obama is a socialist, I’m just assuming he’s a Machievelian socialist.

    That’s why I’m thinking the failure of Chrysler will be used to galvanize support for the bailouts just like the failure of Lehman Bros. provided “justification” for TARP (nevermind that letting Lehman go under was about the only thing the Fed & the Feds did right in the whole mess).

    Not that I think that letting Chrysler go would in this scenario save US taxpayers any money – more of it would just go to GM.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    In the new era where all cars must get 45 mpg, a Fiat 850 spyder, would be a cute commuter car. The design looks good even today.

  • avatar
    Viceroy_Fizzlebottom

    FIAT left America 25 years ago, and was a small-scale brand here, even then. When they return with the 500, the market of people that will be interested in them – early 20s to 30s, upper middle class, hipster pretentions – will not have ever heard of FIAT.

    Kid Cassady: I think you hit the nail on the head there. FIAT and Alfa Romeo have no reputation with their target market in the U.S. Hell a lot of them weren’t even alive the last time Alfa Romeo was here(the 10 cars they sold in the early 90s not withstanding)

  • avatar
    John Horner

    ” … that central planning didn’t work all too well for the Soviets, East Germans, Romanians, communist Chinese, Vietnamese, Yugoslavs, etc etc.”

    Central planning is very much alive and well in China.

  • avatar
    FromBrazil

    HPE:
    You really know what you’re talking about!

    I would add some points. Fiat product is good. The product is among the best. Time is being won and one more custome at a time is also being won over.

    I don’t know what Mr. Dederer considers a major market, but in the 6th largest consumer market in the world (Brazil), Fiat is the market leader for the 7th consecutive year. Holding at the moment 25% of the market. Of the Big 4 down here, Fiat, VW, GM and Ford, it was the only one last year to gain market share. Brazil’s is also the world’s 5th largest producer. Fiat alone produced around 750 thousand cars here last year.

    And lastly, please fellow TTAC commentators (specially the doubters) pray for me. For I’m about to embark on a 1000 mile journey in my little, lowly Fiat Palio. It’s looks like there will be a lot of heat. So pray the air conditioner knob doesn’t come off in my hand. Or worth yet, that the AC breaks! I’ll be driving some at night so pray my lights can make it through such a devilish challenge. There will also be rain. So pray the windows don’t fall back into the door or that the floorpan don’t rust through and I get all wet. Pray for me that my side mirrors don’t fall off, or heaven forbid a wheel go flying off if the precarious axle in my car breaks or something. Please, do pray. That my little engine can take the stress and not explode or implode or overheat. And that the police don’t see me going by at 75 to 80mph and ticket me. Pray that I make this trip in one piece and that my little car is up to the challenge. I tremble at the thought of putting my car through such a perilous endeavor. Light a candle for me will you guys?

    Thank you very much. And cheers! See you tomorrow.

  • avatar
    threeer

    One only has to look at the sales success (or lack thereof) of the Suzuki SX-4 to determine if FIAT has a whiff of a chance of (and by association, Chrysler). It’s a direct styling knock off of the FIAT Sedici. I’m not sure that even a return of $4/gallon gas would increase their odds of making a go of it.

    I love small, tossable cars as much as the next person here on TTAC. Problem is, we’re a car-buying minority. BMW doesn’t hinge on Mini sales, and Chrysler won’t survive on FIAT sales.

  • avatar

    Always loved the Junior Zagato.

    Quit teasing me with all these gorgeous Alfas! Damn you!

    –chuck

  • avatar
    AndrewDederer

    My boss’s X1/9 didn’t just lose the muffler. The entire pipe from the engine back just dropped off all 6+ feet of it (vaulting over the poor slob following him). That’s leaving aside the disintigrating brake.. This was 20 odd years later, and the memories were still vivid.

    But the point is, there’s no way Fiat (improved or no) can give Chrysler enough sales to survive this mess. All it does is let them tweek their books (no developement money), to maybe fool someone into thinking they’re savable.

  • avatar
    fincar1

    …and a Dutch Alfa at that…probably photographed on the Rotterdam waterfront.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    BTW,more than half of Fiat’s profits come from Brazil! And the way Europe is going, it may well be 100% soon.

  • avatar
    mtypex

    “Chrysler and Dodge brands, no one will want those. Some automaker like Daimler or Ford in the end might buy them for funny money just to make sure no one makes cars called that again.”

    That doesn’t kill me. Say, who owns the Maxwell brand? I would love to see a car called “Maxwell House.” They could assemble it in Bulgaria with, oh, a Peugeot-Renault-Volvo engine. Or, Northern Ireland.

    Or we could just get 2009 Toyota Venza, be shiny happy people, and stop messing around.

    Or not.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    So how exactly is Obama more socialist than Bush? They have both spent ALOT of money bailing out different groups. I don’t think either party deserves any awards. In case you are wondering I voted Bush twice but Democrat this for the first time in my life.

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    And FWIW I have driven alot of very tough little Fiats. Not tough in a collision vs a big Detroit SUV but tough in the sense that you can drive them for decades with just bailing wire repairs.

  • avatar
    derm81

    Would it be possible for Fiat and Alfa Romeo to take America customers away from Audi and VW? A lot of of my friends in certain geographic areas of the US drive certain brands since they feel the need to be nifty and keep up with their friends. I can see the Audi crowd falling in love with Alfas simply due to its sophisticated “European” feel.

  • avatar
    rocket88

    I too am getting tired of the Fiat bashing on this site, from people who dont seem to know what they are talking about. Fiat plants are some of the most advanced anywhere (ive toured many of them more than once), and their designs have been really successful of late. And they have been quite successful outside of ITaly too.
    They got a bad rap over here 20-30 years ago, in part because of the poor dealer network. In Italy, Fiats are regarded as dependable as are the dealers. Some of this problem could potentially be solved by using Chrysler dealers.
    If Chrysler could be turned around like Sergio Marchione did for Fiat, then everyone in the USA and Canada should applaud. Among other things the key was common sense and taking a fresh look at the business . Their cars are generally speaking small, econmomical, and go fast for their size (which is kind of required in italy). Iits a relatively quick way to fill the gap in Chryslers line, if there is time enough.

  • avatar
    Runfromcheney

    “It doesn’t matter much if the latest Dodge subcompact is actually a Fiat under the skin; it’s still going to say “Dodge” on the hood. You average motorist doesn’t know that a Aveo is a Daewoo and a Vibe is a Toyota; why would they know that these things are Fiats? I don’t think reputation will be the problem here.”

    Amen to that. A friend of mine used to have a Chevrolet Prizm, and had no idea that it was just a badge-engineered Toyota Corolla until I pointed it out to her. I thought that she would at least notice that the car parked next to her with “COROLLA” across the trunk looked exactly like her car……..

  • avatar
    joeaverage

    The quality of dealer networks seems to be a stitch in alot of people’s sides… Don’t worry – having visited dealers in Italy to buy parts I can honestly say that those dealers were very, very expensive relative to the auto parts stores just like here. $65 for a Beetle crank shaft circlip that I could get for less than $5 in the after market. $50 for a BMW distributor cap. Same could be had for $15 or so in the after market just like here.

    What happened to the dealers from the 1960s ads that could fix cars for reasonable prices? Guess that was just a myth too?

    Maybe dealers need to be factory owned and operated?


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