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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)

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End of the road Add to ...

It's both wondrous, and a pitch to the heart, though it is not an ad.

Dean Stoneley, vice-president, marketing, Ford of Canada, says Ford will launch a commercial later this year that will tease Canadian consumers about the Fiesta, due to arrive on these shores in 2010. "I think from a design point of view the Fiesta stands out in its class," Mr. Stoneley says. "It's an aspirational car." And hot-selling in Europe. If Ford handles the brand with verve in Canada, the Fiesta could create the kind of buzz the VW Beetle generated in its day.

In the meantime, the company's corporate branding strategy is centred around what the company calls its "groundswell" campaign. "The goal of the spots is to change perceptions of our brand," says Mr. Stoneley of the rather earnest and conventional commercials built on four message pillars: quality, safety, green, smart. There's nothing emotive about them. "Our approach is more tactical, a lot more grounded," he says. "I think consumers right now are looking for facts. It's less about creative for the sake of creative."

In other words: reassurance. Ford, which hasn't had its hand out for bailout money, released sales figures this week that show that while car sales are down 10 per cent year over year, its month-to-month sales are moving up. The company is gaining market share, though won't quantify by how much.

Mr. Stoneley's mandate is to get consumers into the showroom, where browsers and buyers are currently met with a national dealer promotion event running through the end of the month: "This spring, keep your money," is the marketing line for the zero-down promotion.

At dinner time on a Wednesday there are a couple of customers at Al Palladini's Pine Tree Ford Lincoln dealership, which recently joined company with a string of dealerships - Porsche, BMW and more - on Auto Park Circle in Woodbridge, a short hop from the Romeos' Pine View shop. Business is slow for commercial truck manager Tom Cheslea - all that promised government-funded infrastructure work hasn't translated into commercial truck orders, at least not yet.

Al Palladini died in 2001, but this dealership lives on, run by his son, Franco, and his candy-apple red Ferrari 328 GTS takes pride of place in the showroom with a warning to gawkers: "Unless you're in the nude, please do not touch." Mr. Cheslea tries to recall who it was who voiced those corny, but memorable Palladini ads: "Any Palladini is a pal of mine," was the catchiest. "Short little guy. Comedian," says Mr. Cheslea, struggling in vain for the name. (It was Rick Moranis.)

In the quiet of the showroom, Mr. Cheslea ponders the art of selling. "Selling is like anything else," he says. "Basically all you're doing is meeting the customer's requirements. Sometimes it's price. Sometimes it's product. Sometimes it's specifications. Sometimes it's colour."

What does the customer want?

At Auto Park Circle the customer can find just about anything in the auto world. A Ferrari/Maserati dealership has just opened (the Ferrari California sure is pretty). At the Porsche dealership, customers can recline in the black leather chairs in the "fitting lounge" and create their car on computer: leather, paint, carpet. Mark Basili, online marketing manager for Pfaff Automotive Partners, which owns this dealership and others, says lifestyle is being sold here. And emotion.

"Passion is our policy," he says, moving smoothly through the sleek grey and matte-silver interior of what feels more like a Manhattan condo than an auto dealership. Mr. Basili says that when he was "younger" he would tour luxury dealerships and dream. Today he's 23. "My purchase options have expanded," he says, now that he's working full-time. There's nothing in the current economic maelstrom to make him lust after a new car any less.

At Pine View, the aesthetic is very different. But there's history here. "We flipped customers too fast," says general sales manager Vince Palumbo. "We were flipping vehicles so fast because the programs were so good." We chat about leasing, and the new-car-every-three-years ethos of modern American car culture. And then the broader economic woes, what Mr. Palumbo calls this "whole money situation and banking … In the States, you know, you could just open up a bank and call it Bob's Bank and it's a bank."

It's people like the Romeos who are paying the price for all that. Frank Romeo recalls how surprised he was when he realized that when cars arrive on the auto lot they don't appear quite as magical as they do in the advertisements. "I always envisioned these cars when they came from the factory as being shiny … all clean and glittery," he says. He wasn't counting on the dirt and dust encountered on the trek to the dealership.

The family has a Nissan franchise, where spanking new cars will still arrive. And the planned-for used-car business here at Pine View. "When you work hard to build something and you're proud of it and then see someone take it away for no apparent reason, it certainly is disappointing," Frank says. "But you know, it is what it is. We're going to pick up the pieces and move forward."

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  • Updated August 21 4:00 PM EDT. Delayed by at least 15 minutes.

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