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Dom Romeo, CEO of Pine View Pontiac Buick GMC Trucks, speaks with an employee in the showroom. (Anne-Marie Jackson/Anne-Marie Jackson/THE GLOBE AND)
Dom Romeo, CEO of Pine View Pontiac Buick GMC Trucks, speaks with an employee in the showroom. (Anne-Marie Jackson/Anne-Marie Jackson/THE GLOBE AND)

Cover Story

End of the road Add to ...

"Have a look. My name is Rick, by the way. Have a look in this car. Hop in it."

Hop in it?

"Yeah. It doesn't cost you any more."

And so it begins. The seduction. The salesman on the showroom floor - in this case Rick Spagnuolo at Pine View Pontiac Buick Sales Ltd., out in what was once the rural outreaches of Toronto.

The vehicle on the showroom floor - in this case a silver Buick Enclave that feels about as big as Montana once you get up behind the wheel there.

And the customer?

"I sold one of these the day before yesterday," trumpets Mr. Spagnuolo, whose eyes dance in the late-afternoon sunshine and who seems like such a nice man and who peeled 11 grand off the $57,000 sticker price on a pearl white (beige interior) Enclave.

"That's a beautiful car … My wife and I drove to Florida three or four months ago. We got there, it was like I hadn't even driven a car."

You might think for a second that time has stood still. Except it hasn't.

On Monday, General Motors Corp. filed for bankruptcy protection.

Ten days before that, Frank Romeo, whose father, Dom, opened Pine View in August, 1970, was given notice that the family-run dealership is being terminated.

"It hit all of us," recalls Frank, who at 52 has spent a lifetime on and around the sales floor.

"You're never quite prepared for anything like that."

Not that he didn't see it coming.

With the Pontiac marque accounting for 50 per cent of the dealer's sales, and with GM taking the decision in April to axe the brand, Pine View was on the vulnerable side of the GM "house" - the other side of the house being the Chevrolet side. A piece of car history died that day, leaving memories of the summer of '76, or thereabouts, when Frank and his brother Steve fixed up a beaten-down silver GTO convertible and spent the season tooling in their off hours to Wasaga Beach, "a happening place," he says. Sun. Hot dogs. Sand. A convertible. "We had a nice summer with that car." Dom drove a Buick Riviera. "He always enjoyed the ride of a Buick," Frank says. "Boy they were big cars. They seemed to me like they took up most of the road."

Those were the days. When GM owned the road. When Americans' love of the American car was at its emotional zenith. Before the auto maker, and its sister American car makers for that matter, faced the challenge of having to reinvent themselves and convince consumers that they've got something worth buying, as they are trying to do today.

As recently as two years ago the Romeo family saw no reason why their intergenerational dealership, not uncommon within the GM family, would pass again to future generations.

Today? "We're looking at other opportunities that may exist in the marketplace," Frank says. "We are going to continue as an independent auto dealer. We have a great used-car operation. We have our own in-house leasing company. And we have a good service department. We believe we can play a part in the community here but we won't be a new-car franchise dealer at the end of our contract with General Motors." The contract expires Dec. 31.

Mr. Romeo takes a studied view of what's happening all around him. "I think we are going through a real culture change in the auto industry," he says. "What drives the industry is having those vehicles that create that 'wow' that the consumer says, 'Gee, I've got to have one of those.' General Motors … lost that in the eighties and nineties. They just didn't build enough 'wow' vehicles."

GM tries to find new voice

The day that General Motors filed for Chapter 11 it rolled out a 60-second commercial with which the car company has blanketed the airwaves. "Let's be completely honest," intones a narrator in one of those classically rich - and male - commercial voices. "No company wants to go through this."

Like a creative mood board, the spot is a mélange of images: green shoots, a downed hockey player, a flapping flag, a runner with an artificial leg. Cue the male voice: "We're not witnessing the end of the American car. We're witnessing the rebirth of the American car."

The commercial marks General Motors' first marketing salvo in the resetting of the U.S. car industry, in which there is a single objective not just for GM, but for all of the once-heralded Big Three - to "wow" the consumer into loving their cars.

Scott Lackey, strategic director at Jugular Advertising in New York, was unimpressed. "It was just another anthem spot," he says of the commercial, meaning a series of quick filmic cuts with inspiring imagery. Given the questions today's consumer is bound to have about the car company - such as, will it be around in a year? - Mr. Lackey argues that GM needed to put something "forceful and dramatic in the marketplace. Something real. Not motherhood and apple pie, fighters and flags."

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  • General Motors Co
  • Updated July 27 4:01 PM EDT. Delayed by at least 15 minutes.

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