Next Chapter for Chrysler?

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It is said that the world is in a state of bankruptcy, that the world owes
the world more than the world can pay.
— Ralph Waldo Emerson

You could call my first boss a visionary. Back in the early 1980s, when Ronald Reagan was first elected president, he owned a magazine called Record World, where I’d worked since college days. A deep recession and plummeting record sales had decimated our ad revenues, and clients told us things would get worse before they got better. So, before anyone had heard of the Internet or downloadable music, before CDs made an impact, Record World stopped spinning.

My boss considered Chapter 11 so we could keep publishing and reorganize our debts. But he feared the golden age of the record business was over and concluded he didn’t have a viable business, reorganization or no. He chose Chapter 7, and one day the company simply evaporated — no notice, no severance, no nothing.

Eventually, of course, my boss would be proved right: The record business would collapse. He just got to the funeral a couple of decades early.

Chrysler may be to cars what Record World was to publishing. It can already see its own death, and appears to be putting its affairs in order.

Last week, my significant other and I tried our best to buy a car from Chrysler, which recently went into Chapter 11. She had her heart set on a Melbourne-green PT Cruiser, and the idea of buying American felt right. So, checkbook in hand, we made our way to the nearest Chrysler dealership. They didn’t have the car we wanted on the premises, but the salesman said they could get it from another lot.

We wanted to lease so we’d have more cash on hand for doctor bills, charitable donations and frozen yogurt with cookie dough. “A new lease on life” is what President Obama said bankruptcy would give Chrysler, but there would be no new lease for us, because, said the salesman, Chrysler is no longer in the leasing business.

Still, the S.O. wanted her P.T., so we agreed to pay cash. All we needed to close the deal was to see the car — to make sure the color was as fabulous in the real world as it had appeared online — and take a quick test drive.

You’d think the salesman would’ve showered us with free popcorn while fantasizing about how to spend his commission. Instead, he informed us — to our astonishment — that if we wanted that Cruiser, we had to fork over a non-refundable cashier’s check for the full purchase price before we could see the car, let alone test-drive it. Incredulous, I demanded to speak to a supervisor, but there was nothing anyone could do. That was Chrysler’s policy. Take it or leave it.

This got us thinking about a Blackberry Fit we’d seen on Honda’s website. (“Blackberry” refers to the car’s amazing deep purple hue as opposed to the fruit, the PDA or the group famous for “Hush”; it’s unclear which meaning of “fit” Honda is going for.). We beelined to Miller Honda in Van Nuys, where the salesman told us they, like Chrysler, didn’t have the color we wanted on their lot. But that’s where the similarity ended.

We asked the Honda salesman the same questions we’d put to Chrysler. Do you have a great leasing program? Absolutely. When can you get it from another lot? Now. Can we take a look and a test-drive before making our decision? Of course. Do you need a cashier’s check? A regular check will be fine. Done deal.

Bailouts and Chapter 11 bankruptcies are supposed to help companies remain competitive. Chrysler wouldn’t exist without them. But if our tax dollars and favorable bankruptcy proceedings “save” a company only to have its business practices drive away customers — in Hondas! — what’s the point?

To save jobs? Not if Chrysler continues to make Alice in Wonderland seem like an oasis of sanity. If they don’t change their ways, their next chapter will be Unlucky 7.

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