- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 6, 2009

For a guy who says he’s only good at selling cars, Jack Fitzgerald gets around — and gets things done.

He’s been recognized for his efforts on behalf of child-safety-seat installation, clean energy, the humane treatment of animals and no-haggle pricing. He testified successfully against a bid by some large auto-dealership chains to escape Florida’s consumer protection laws.

He has lobbied the automakers to improve quality, and hence their Consumer Reports ratings, which he says influence many shoppers. He has fought efforts by Chrysler in particular, he says, to cut corners on warranty service.

When he’s not pursuing such crusades, including his latest battle over the closing of more 3,000 dealerships across the nation, or tending to his Montgomery County-based 13-store Fitzgerald Auto Mall empire, Mr. Fitzgerald, in his grandfatherly way, might be found doing simple favors.

A friend — former WUSA9 consumer reporter Jan Fox — called recently to say a woman at her church was down on her luck after a divorce and needed cheap, reliable wheels.

Mr. Fitzgerald immediately consulted his sister, Dottie, a vice president in his JJF Holding Co., on available used cars. A son and son-in-law are also part of the family business.

“Get Eddie to go over it a second time just to make sure,” he said, referring to service manager Eddie Santos. “The important thing is we’ve got to get her a good car.”

Mr. Fitzgerald worked with Ms. Fox and county officials on car-safety seats starting in the late 1990s.

“He’s a genuine guy, there’s nothing puffed up. His shirts might even be ruffled from time to time,” she said.

His dealerships bear understated signs with the “Fitzgerald Auto Mall” name in small cursive letters. The Air Force veteran shuns the outsized American flags other dealerships flaunt.

His offices sprawl across the top floor of his cramped Hyundai Isuzu Subaru dealership in Kensington. Pictures, plaques, citations and more model cars and planes than a boy could dream of fill the rooms.

“I found out a long time ago that I’m good at selling cars,” Mr. Fitzgerald demurs. “I’m not good at anything else.”

Born at K Street and North Capitol Northwest, he graduated from St. Aloysius, now on the grounds of Gonzaga College High School.

He started selling cars in 1956 at the old Handley Ford in the District for the elder Vincent Sheehy, who later founded Sheehy Ford. He started his own “hole in the wall” Dodge dealership in Bethesda in 1966, on a lot now occupied by a Chevy Chase Bank.

After selling books and vacuum cleaners door to door, Mr. Fitzgerald wanted to get into a business where the customers came to him.

However, as a junior salesman, he was also sent door to door selling cars.

“I went out and put ‘would you takes’ on windshields, ‘Would you take $1,500 for this car,’” he says. “Sooner or later, you put one on the windshield of somebody who’s actually looking for a car.

“In those days, they could give you anything you wanted for a car, they’d just raise the price of the new one. We didn’t have any disclosure” such as manufacturer’s suggested retail price stickers, he says.

On his own cars today, he has his own no-haggle pricing stickers — something he began before Saturn made the practice well known.

But the wide-ranging interests and keen eye for detail revealed in his cluttered office, along with all the artifacts of his successful causes, belie the humble car-salesman myth.

Over three rooms, tables, desks and bookshelves are covered with neat stacks of business records, industry news, and books (“The Fifties” by David Halberstam) and articles on everything from vintage planes to North Korea.

That well-read intellect is serving him well now that he’s in the fight of his life against what he sees as out-of-touch automakers who are putting his fellow dealers out of business and will soon drive the American auto industry to the same fate.

The soft-spoken 74-year-old will work all hours to thwart the plans of the Obama administration’s auto task force, which he says has helped drive the domestic dealership closings and has misled the president about it.

The same kind of financial whiz kids have been engineering Detroit’s decline for decades, he says. “You don’t save your way into making a profit, you make a profit by selling something people want to buy.”

In rare moments of anger, he calls today’s General Motors and Chrysler executives “liars” and “jerks” who have “ruined” their companies by building inferior cars.

He says he doesn’t gripe unless it’s necessary, but when he does, he gripes effectively, providing reporters with analyses, rebuttals, maps and unfavorable Consumer Reports rankings on U.S. automakers.

Some area dealers, though expressing respect for Mr. Fitzgerald, have privately told reporters he was wrong to rip the quality of the cars he sells — and they sell.

Chrysler terminated three of Mr. Fitzgerald’s area franchises, and GM is seeking to “wind down” three others by the end of next year.

Mr. Fitzgerald, who sells a variety of car brands, will be fine. Other family businesses have been completely destroyed.

Though he can make just as much from Toyotas and Subarus as Detroit-made cars, this D.C. native who started selling cars in GM’s heyday mourns the fate of the industry he grew up with.

Up and down his stamping ground along Rockville Pike in Montgomery County, he can document that where there once were only domestic dealers, foreign outlets now outnumber domestics by 45 to 7 in one of the wealthiest suburbs in the country.

“They can’t come back this way,” Mr. Fitzgerald says. “Rockville Pike, that’s their problem. Nobody goes out of their way to buy a domestic car,” he says.

When the dealer closings were announced, Mr. Fitzgerald joined with others such as Tammy Darvish of Darcars Automotive Group in Silver Spring to create a lobbying group as single-minded as they were.

The Committee to Restore Dealer Rights played a key role in pushing legislation to House passage in a matter of months, spending nearly $400,000 in the effort, he says.

The National Automobile Dealers Association is riven with internal conflict and inclined to cut an unfavorable deal with the automakers, Mr. Fitzgerald says.

“If it wasn’t for NADA we would have already won,” he says.

NADA has proposed cash settlements for affected dealers that could total $500 million, but the government and GM — “Government Motors” as critics call it — say there is no money to give.

Mr. Fitzgerald’s group proposes that any dealerships shown to be viable and sustainable, with access to credit, be reopened.

“All we are asking for is our franchises back,” he says. “It wouldn’t cost anything.”

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