Saturday, February 3, 2007

“An improbable object of desire”: The Oregonian had an amazing two-part feature in December (which somehow I missed and discovered this morning) about Ron Tonkin’s attempt to sell Smart cars in the U.S. Tonkin, who is a car dealer and a household name in the Portland area, became one of the first American dealers to sell Ferraris in 1966, after he fell in love with one on a trip to Italy. He saw the same magic in the tiny little Smart cars, which he believed could sell even better than the Mini Cooper. And they broke his heart. From the Big O:

After his 2001 visit to Italy [when he first saw the Smart car], Tonkin’s mind often wandered to the little car, even as Mercedes Car Group’s Smart GmbH division suffered bleak sales. Mercedes’ parent, DaimlerChrysler AG, decided Americans were too keen on sport-utility vehicles and by 2003 shelved plans to export stateside.

Then one August day in 2005, two Florida salesmen showed up at Tonkin’s dealership office on Southeast 122nd Avenue. He usually didn’t see people without an appointment, but this call piqued his interest. Mike Mervish, a burly 48-year-old with a tan, introduced himself as a salesman for Smartz U.S.A. and proceeded to do all the talking.

Mervish told Tonkin that his Fort Lauderdale firm was the only U.S. company with federal approval to sell Smartz cars — the name twist on Smart that the company gave its version of the impish imports. In an appeal refined over years as a car salesman, Mervish told Tonkin he could be Smartz’s exclusive dealer in Oregon.

Tonkin remembers a pitch heavy on showmanship. The cars were “on the high seas” bound for a port in Brunswick, Ga., Tonkin recalls Mervish saying. Cars would be in Portland by fall, he promised, and Smartz President Tim Davis would keep lining up a dealer network. With Tonkin’s price at $21,000 and retail around $23,000, each Smartz would earn about $2,000 in profit, Mervish said. Not the juiciest margin, but, for a car whose futuristic looks stopped passers-by in their tracks, sales could add up.

Smart cars, designed by edgy Swiss watchmaker Swatch, would zip off lots in the earth-friendly Pacific Northwest, the salesman continued. He had lived in Oregon a while, he told Tonkin, and knew it was full of tree-huggers.

Tonkin contained a good-natured eye-roll. Flashy guys from Florida didn’t need to tell him what his customers liked, he remembers thinking. He was a fourth-generation Oregonian and a second-generation car dealer.

But the prospect reignited the spark he’d felt four years earlier in Italy. Here was a shot to sell the flirty little car that no other local dealer had — before Daimler-Chrysler changed its mind.

[Links to parts one and two]

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