During the Indiana hearings about franchise laws, local car magnate Tom Kelley made a Pandora’s Box argument that we’re likely to hear again, unfortunately. Skip to 31:10 and you’ll hear, “I’m more concerned about the Chinese and people from India bringing cars in the United States if they have an easy access to do that.”
State franchise laws do NOT protect us from junky marques. Anyone over 40, and that includes Mr. Kelley, remembers when perfectly legit franchises used to offer the likes of Alfa, Peugeot, Renault, Yugo and Fiat. They had made it across the treacherous moat into the US market. Hooray! They had sales and service support from franchisees. Yay! But then the American consumer gave ’em the heave-ho back into the water. Why? Because they were lousy cars. Franchise laws didn’t filter them out. We, the consumers, did the filtering.
Moreover, there was no Internet. No Renault forums to warn that the Le Car’s hand brake had a tendency to snap off in your hand. We had to rely on monthly mags like Consumer Reports and word of mouth. Using just those primitive tools, the US consumer was still able to ascertain that, say, Toyota and Honda were better bets. In short, we’re capable of voting with our wallets.
Yet we’re supposed to believe that a shoddy Chinese marque will slip under the radar circa 2020, into mass circulation, and somehow appear in our driveways? Come on now. We’re savvier than that, aren’t we?
Look, if we insist on NOT thanking ourselves, but instead thanking government for protecting us, we should thank federal regulators — the NHTSA and the EPA — not checkered state franchise laws. The feds do push automakers around like club bouncers. Heck, they just recently forced the Alfa 4C to go home and come back 220 lbs heavier, just for us. But despite our gauntlet of federal door guards, if you have a compelling enough product, you can modify it for the US market and find buyers, and profit.
The “compelling” part, of course, is the problem. Ask serial importer Malcolm Bricklin. He introduced Subaru to the US. Success! But also the Fiat X1/9 and the Yugo. Failure! And franchise laws had nothing to do with any of those outcomes, Mr. Kelley, nor are they responsible for Suzuki’s recent departure.