FRANKENMUTH, Mich., March 23 (Reuters) - One of Dorothy Bierlein’s earliest memories is of her father shoeing horses in one half of his business while selling newfangled automobiles in the other half.
“My father would beat the red hot horseshoes into shape, dip them in a bucket of water and then shoe the horses,” said Bierlein, 88. “Then he’d teach a customer how to drive a car because no one knew how to drive then.”
“If they learned to drive he could sell the car.”
Dorothy’s son Randy, 58, now runs the auto dealership his grandfather added onto his blacksmith shop in 1914 after taking an auto repair course in Detroit.
The business, Schaefer & Bierlein Chrysler, Dodge and Jeep, ranks as one of the world’s oldest auto dealerships at a time when hundreds of the retailers are being forced out of business in the United States because of tight credit and plunging sales.
Randy is the fifth generation of his family to run the business and is waiting to see the fate of Chrysler LLC — the automaker his family has partnered with for 76 years and which has become part of his family — as it struggles to survive the worst auto industry downturn in almost three decades.
“We’re just trying to sell our cars one by one,” he said with a shrug. “We have to with all the cars Chrysler has been ramming down our throats.
“If the rug gets pulled out from under us, then maybe we’ll just become the best used-car dealer around.”
Randy’s son Kyle is the sixth generation in the business.
To the right of his desk is a cartoon from the 1980s with a Chrysler car driving out of a grave with the words “The reports about the death of Chrysler were greatly exaggerated” — a play on a quote from author Mark Twain — which was drawn after the automaker’s first government bailout.
If Chrysler — 80 percent controlled by private equity Cerberus Capital Management LP [CBS.UL] — dies this time round, Bierlein is under no illusions of what it will do to his business.
“If Chrysler goes down, they’ll take us with them,” he said.
Before the blacksmith shop became an auto dealer, it had been in business since 1852.
It was founded by Randy’s great-great-grandfather George M. Schaefer, a German immigrant like many others who settled this town in up in the part of mitten-shaped Michigan known as the “thumb.”
When Randy’s grandfather Barney Schaefer added on the auto business in 1914, he was also selling John Deere farm equipment. The dealership sold Deere & Co (DE.N) products until the 1970s.
Barney sold a few Buicks — now part of the empire of General Motors Corp (GM.N) — and once told Randy that Ford Motor Co (F.N) founder Henry Ford came to see him at one point to ask if he would sell Fords.
“My grandfather sold a couple of Fords, but I guess it didn’t work out,” Randy said.
His grandfather also made him promise that he never take the Schaefer name off the franchise.
The family signed on as a dealership for Dodge and Plymouth — both part of Chrysler — in 1933. “We’ve been with them so long, Chrysler is family,” Randy said.
Thanks to a loyal customer base — Randy told of one family that has been buying cars at his dealership for four generations — his sales were up 26 percent in 2008. In the first two months of this year he sold 77 cars, compared with 76 in the same period last year.
In 2008 Chrysler’s overall sales fell 30 percent and for the first two months of 2009 they were down 49 percent. The company has taken $4 billion in emergency loans from the U.S. government and asked for another $5 billion while it weighs an alliance with Italy’s Fiat SpA.FIA.MI
In a bid to bring in revenue in January, Chrysler asked dealers to buy more cars. Randy Bierlein answered the call, swelling his inventory to $6 million worth of vehicles from $4.5 million.
He recounted how at a meeting with Chrysler in January, he told head of sales Jim Press that he was “in the program.”
“I told him that if I go bankrupt with $4.5 million in inventory or I go bankrupt with $6 million, it won’t make much difference,” Randy said.
Whether or not Chrysler survives, Randy says he is just going to keep on selling cars.
“All you can do is the best you can with the things you can control,” he said. “The things you can’t affect, you can’t worry about.”
“We’re just going to keep on moving the iron,” he said. (Additional reporting by Soyoung Kim; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)