Originally published Nov. 7, 2010

Tom Tague backed a used Chrysler into an empty spot of a patchwork parking lot, flung the door open, and jumped out.

The car salesman, a 46-year-old with a muscular build and a boyish smile, was working harder than ever. "The place is a nuthouse," he said apologetically. "We've been busy." The place looked empty.

It was all so different. Tague used to be the wizard of Weathers Dodge, but in 2009 Chrysler scotched the Delaware County franchise. A year later he was part of a shaky experiment in reinvention known as Weathers Motors, a used-car and service business.

Energetic as always, he dashed into the tiny showroom to a desk so old its age could almost be carbon-dated.

Nearby, a woman, the lone customer that evening, complimented the tidy dealership on its old-fashioned warmth.

At his desk, with pictures of his wife and teenage daughters plastered behind him, Tague didn't talk about cars. He talked about money, and how hard it was to make it anymore.

"We're all taking a cut" in salary, he said. "But you also learn to live within your means. I don't spend frivolous."

His defiant optimism couldn't mask a big concern. Everyone in the dealership, he said, was worried about the boss, Junior.

"The guy doesn't go down," Tague said hopefully. "He's like Rocky."

Lawrence Weathers Jr., 79 years old and still known as Junior, hadn't been the same since the summer of shattered dreams.

That was when Chrysler came after Weathers Dodge, a pillar on Baltimore Pike in Lima, Delaware County, since the Great Depression. Weathers' father, the first Larry Weathers, "Papa Lar," founded the dealership in 1931, the year Junior was born, celebrating his new son's birth by planting a sycamore across the street - a tree that still stands.

May, June, and July 2009 ended decades of American prosperity, years that made people believe if you worked hard in this country, you got ahead.

Tague, the Weathers, and so many others were frontline casualties of a lasting recession. Their business was a car dealership, but it could have been any small venture anywhere in America, hardworking people struggling to keep up and falling behind.

Its owners, an old-school father and his New Age son, found themselves up against forces of change. Sure, they made some bad decisions over the years, by their own admission. They rejected corporate guidance and stood by tradition. They thought their loyalty to Chrysler would be enough, just as loyalty to their employees and their customers had always been their bond.

But the global economic crisis was so expansive and so deep, it obliterated millions of jobs and threatened the very existence of two of the nation's top automotive companies. With urgent aid from the White House, decisions were made that set in motion the end of Weathers Dodge, endangered its community of workers, and dashed the myth of middle-class economic security.

Now, a year later, Junior was still worried. Worried about the future. Worried about his family and his work family. How would he care for them?

Tague, ever the good salesman, said: "If anyone can do it, it'll be Larry."

A devastating letter

The unraveling of the Weathers family business began on May 14, 2009: 26 days until court-ordered closure for a tattered but stubborn landmark. A UPS envelope arrived at the dealership around 9:30 a.m., and a young parts attendant rushed it to Junior's office, where the owner was anxiously waiting.

Junior went to his son's office next door, passing a bookshelf upon which sat a framed picture of Papa Lar, beneath which was inscribed the Weathers Dodge mantra: "Be fair, honest, and give good service."

Four paragraphs on a form letter ordered father and son out of business by June 9, 2009.

The son swears he felt his heart stop.

The father stood there and cried.

"These are extraordinary times," the letter said, "and they call for extraordinary efforts."

Chrysler, which had filed for Chapter 11 protection two weeks earlier, was asking a bankruptcy judge to erase its franchise agreement with the Weathers family. Such a move would also threaten the community of 26 employees who made the business run.

For decades, that franchise contract had given Weathers the right to buy and sell Dodge cars. In less than a month, such pacts would be worthless, and 789 Chrysler dealerships across the nation would find themselves at the end of the road.

Weathers Dodge wasn't like Starbucks, where headquarters buys, opens, and runs new stores with its own money and staff. It was run with family money and bank loans taken out by the family, not Chrysler.

For that reason, dealers in good standing were fiercely protected by state franchise laws; even if Chrysler wanted to shut one down for strategic reasons, it was difficult, if not impossible.

But a bankruptcy judge could nullify state franchise law - and wipe out dealers on the cheap.

"We wish there was a better way," the letter from Chrysler said, "but there isn't."

No appeals.

Junior called his wife, Helene. Their house was down the street, less than a mile away, with a spacious sunroom where Weathers workers had come many a time for parties and cookouts.

"The garage," as Helene called the dealership, "has always been family."

She rushed over. As workers were rounded up, Junior's face was contorted with anguish. He was wearing his old mechanic's uniform, the one he always wore, with embroidered patches saying "Larry" and "Weathers Dodge."

"It's like someone died," said Melissa Mattero, 37, the title clerk, who handles the paperwork on completed sales. Mattero had worked at Weathers for four years.

A few feet away, at a reception desk, sat Kristine Kirk, the office manager. She was 40 and had worked at Weathers since she was 17. Papa Lar, Junior, and his son had all attended her wedding.

Kirk, Mattero, and the others went into the service wing, a large garage built in 1948. As Larry III, Junior's son, delivered the news, Kirk couldn't keep her eyes off Junior. He just stood there.

"Devastated," she described him. "Shocked."

Trying to stay strong for Junior, Kirk held back her tears. "I didn't cry until I got home," she said. "I didn't want to upset them more."

Chrysler would not buy back any of the new cars and trucks that men like Weathers had bought from its factory and put on their lots.

During the worst economic downturn in almost 80 years, Weathers Dodge had to sell, in 26 days, all 108 new vehicles on its property. In a good month, it sold about 30.

If it didn't succeed, the family's investment of $2.32 million in cars, minivans, and pickups would immediately plummet in value. Without the Dodge franchise, Weathers would not be able to sell any remaining cars as new.

At the same time, the Weathers men also had to map out a new livelihood.

Would they be able to retain their employees? The recession was purging hundreds of thousands of people a month from payrolls. Nothing was certain.

"They're vowing to stay open," Kirk said bravely, "and I'm vowing to stay with them. They're like my family."

Larry III tried to stay upbeat. But the ordeal with Chrysler would test Junior's endurance. "I don't know how any of those guys go to sleep at night," he said, "just walking away from us. My whole life is in this building. In this business."

'It used to be fun'

Long before I-95, Baltimore Pike was the path travelers drove between Philadelphia and Baltimore. Here, where it crosses Route 452 in Lima, Junior's Irish grandfather settled at the turn of the last century.

"This building is where my father first started," Junior said, standing one day inside a whitewashed old barn.

In 1922, Papa Lar began selling the first mass-produced cars out of that barn, and in 1931 he obtained the rights to sell Dodge.

The barn also safeguards a giant hulk of steel, a spoke-wheeled beauty Eliot Ness might have steered through Chicago: a 1922 Dodge Touring Car, the kind Pancho Villa gunned across the border into Mexico.

"It's my baby, now," Junior said. So what if its black paint was scuffed? Junior liked it that way. He liked his dealership that way, too.

"I hope it stays here till I die," he said. "Then they can do what they want with it."

That car was a reminder of early years full of promise. In 1948, the family built an upgraded showroom and service department next to the barn to handle the growing demand.

There were few imports back then, no Internet, no speed-shopping online, no pitting a dealer in Langhorne against one in Trenton for the best, final offer. Consumers flocked to domestic brands like Ford, General Motors, and Dodge. If a vehicle broke down and the dealer fixed it, the customer came back.

Handshakes, trust, and courtesy sealed a transaction. It was a recipe, Junior believed, that needed no adjustment.

"There used to be a lot of satisfaction taking care of people," Junior said. "The local doctor. Snowstorm. As soon as he heard snow, he'd call up, you'd go to his house and put chains on so he could make his calls."

Junior had planned to go into road construction after serving in the U.S. Navy. He had a college degree from Villanova. But in December 1955, the family needed help.

"My father was sick, so I just came and went into the shop," he said, assuming leadership of the repair wing. "I just stayed."

In the 1960s, Chrysler had 6,500 new-car dealerships - peak numbers for high-flying times.

"It used to be fun," Junior remembered.

But fun hit the brakes in the 1970s. Foreign automakers with smaller, fuel-efficient cars were penetrating the U.S. market. In 1980, Chrysler barreled into its first bailout crisis. It borrowed money from dealers like Weathers Dodge and received $1.5 billion in loan guarantees from President Jimmy Carter.

Three years later, the company paid back the federal loan and introduced a never-before-seen vehicle style: the minivan.

Weathers Dodge also regrouped that year, when Larry Weathers III, like his dad a college grad and Navy man, joined the business after being asked to lend a hand. His brother and sister, though, did not get involved with the business.

You could put the two 6-foot guys next to each other and never guess they shared the same DNA. They're yin and yang, from the son's slight belly bulge, balding head, and brown eyes to his dad's stick-like frame, shaggy scalp, and baby blues.

Son likes to chat with customers, philosophize about life, and be quick with a smile. Father likes to work with his hands, not his mouth: "I'm not going to get your car fixed by talking to you," he'd tell customers.

Junior kept control of the service department, while Larry III took over sales and built up a new staff. One of his hires, in 1988, was 24-year-old Tom Tague, a sparkplug of wit who had graduated from Neumann College.

Tague stored toy prizes under his desk to entertain kids while he talked business with their parents.

But far from Weathers Dodge, giant forces were shaping a grim future. Chrysler's all-time-high profit of $3.7 billion, in 1994, would not endure.

Competition was closing franchises. At the beginning of 1998, there were 2,500 fewer foreign and domestic light-vehicle dealerships than a decade earlier. Several thousand more would disappear the next decade.

Germany's Daimler-Benz AG gobbled up Chrysler in 1998, ushering in an era of remarkable decline: In 2001, Chrysler sold 2.5 million vehicles. Six years later, sales reached only 2.1 million.

In 2007, things spiraled after Daimler sold a majority stake of the company to private equity firm Cerberus Capital Management, L.P.

In 2008, sales tanked 30 percent. With gasoline at $4 a gallon, big cars and trucks - Chrysler mainstays - were barely selling.

In late 2008, with the stock market buckling, Chrysler and General Motors Corp., once the world's largest automaker, were running out of cash. They begged the government for help.

Millions of jobs and a manufacturing network were at risk. President George W. Bush authorized a government rescue.

On Dec. 19, Bush's lame-duck Treasury Department formed the Automotive Industry Financing Program, which allowed the government to provide loans to automakers and their financing arms.

In early 2009, with President Obama barely a month in office, the Treasury Department formed an Auto Team to oversee orderly bankruptcies and, ultimately, $80 billion in taxpayer loans.

Chrysler proposed a partnership with Italy's Fiat S.p.A., so that Fiat could help it introduce more fuel-efficient European-style cars.

Chrysler said it would continue its streamlining effort to reduce its dealers from 3,181 to 2,000 by 2014.

Not enough, responded the Auto Team: Speed up dealer closures. This pressure would later be revisited by a Treasury Department special inspector general.

Two weeks after Chrysler filed for bankruptcy, termination letters went out to 789 dealers, including Junior.

Down to the wire

"This," Tom Tague said, "is what you're buying."

He snapped a business card onto his desk and pointed to his name and home telephone number. Even in the online 21st century, Tague was insisting that what mattered was old-fashioned service.

"Nobody else puts their home phone number on their card," said Tague. "If somebody needs me, I'm there."

On June 3, 2009, the people who needed him most were his coworkers at Weathers Dodge. There were just six days until The End, and the dealership still had a lot of cars to sell.

A manic pace was building. Liquidation signs had gone up on the showroom's windows. What a pleasant surprise, then, to see the couple who headed straight for Tague's desk. He greeted them with a broad smile.

"You guys would look great in this car right over here," he said of a white 2009 Dodge Caliber. The man and woman laughed. They knew his pitch. Angelina and Jose Caro, physicians from nearby Morton, had been loyal customers since 1988.

In his office, Junior was watching a live telecast on his computer screen. A U.S. Senate committee was grilling General Motors chief executive Fritz Henderson and Chrysler president Jim Press over the soon-to-be-vanquished dealerships.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John D. "Jay" Rockefeller IV was livid. In his home state of West Virginia, Chrysler was eliminating 40 percent of its dealerships at unprecedented speed.

Junior was obsessed with the political theater surrounding the demise of his business. It was clear Rockefeller was frustrated. He would request a federal audit on how - and why - so many dealerships were being shut down so quickly.

On this day, Rockefeller wanted answers.

Would you know how to close down a dealership in just 26 days? he asked the Chrysler president.

"The fact of the matter is that, in our situation, we did not plan or have in our minds the desire to have a bankruptcy," Press replied.

"Yes, you did!" Weathers shouted at the screen.

Every word out of the Chrysler president's mouth spurred Junior's rage. Just a few months earlier, as Chrysler scrambled to avoid collapse, Press had begged dealers to order more cars.

Even though new cars weren't selling after the stock-market crash, Weathers had heeded Chrysler's call. Now he was rushing to unload inventory he hadn't needed.

No matter what Press said, Junior pounced. "You dumb-ass!" he yelled at the computer. "Get the hell out of here!"

Out in the showroom, the Caros didn't hear Junior. They were listening to Tague's siren song. "That's your car - right behind you," he said again with a wink.

"Really?" they said. What's the gas mileage? Better than the 2001 Dodge Stratus they were driving?

The banter was over. Tague answered every question.

But what if we need the car serviced under warranty after Weathers Dodge is gone?

"I will personally take it to a local dealer myself," Tague assured them. And the trio zoomed off for a test drive.

Larry III was sifting through lowball offers jamming his e-mail inbox. He was so busy pounding rebates, taxes, and other figures into his adding machine that an 18-foot strip of paper spiraled off his desk like tape from a crime scene.

"You can either live in the past," he snapped, "or you can live in the future."

In the showroom, Tague worked to close the deal.

"We were not planning to buy a car; we were just going to look," said Angelina Caro.

She and her husband were proud to talk about their loyalty to Weathers Dodge, as were other shoppers and repair customers who came in those final days. "They're so honest," Jose Caro said.

The Caros sampled all the Caliber's features. Tague knew you couldn't rush the process, though he had a lot more cars to sell.

Used-car manager Tom O'Connor, at his desk, calculated a trade-in value for the Caros' 2001 Dodge Stratus. He was another Weathers old-timer who knew customers by name.

The pitch was made.

The Caros conferred.

They considered.

You've got a deal, they said.

The paperwork was prepped, reviewed, and signed. The car was hosed down and rolled out front.

Tague carried Target bags from the Stratus to the trunk of the new Caliber. And Angelina and Jose Caro were off before dinnertime.

In his office, Junior had not taken his eyes off the Senate hearing. Could you close a dealership so quickly? Rockefeller had asked angrily.

"I would - I would have to find a way to do it," said the Chrysler president. "Yes, sir, I would."

Not quite dead yet

The Final Day began with drenching rainstorms.

At 6 a.m., Junior fired an e-mail to Chrysler, asking what an ongoing legal challenge meant to the closures.

No one expected a reversal. Still, Junior, a marked man, dared to hope.

A fury of noise arose in the service department. Idling engines, grinding machines, and the shouts of men bounced off the brick walls.

The 5,600-square-foot garage had a vintage feel, just like the showroom, with its mismatched desks, filing cabinets, and console TV. In the shop, old signs hung like museum pieces. On June 9, 2009, with Weathers speeding toward its destruction at midnight, the service shop hummed like a new engine.

Every hydraulic lift held a car or truck in midair. Grease-coated Rich Pinnock was cutting brakes for a new car under warranty. The lifelong Chrysler mechanic had already been squeezed out of two shuttered dealerships, and he had landed the Weathers gig just months earlier.

"I've been a Dodge mechanic since 1976," said Pinnock, working a lathe with ease.

Even though he was 51, Pinnock lacked seniority at Weathers Dodge. He'd be among the first to go if Weathers couldn't avoid layoffs.

And yet, Pinnock said he was less worried about himself than Junior, whom he considered a good, smart man getting a raw deal.

The shop dripped with condensation. A detailing attendant, busy hosing down just-sold cars, pooled suds and water on the gray concrete floor.

In the showroom, salesmen were selling models faster than they could be rolled out front and driven home. Weathers was on pace to notch 24 sales by midnight - almost a month's worth in a single day.

Two TV news crews were at the door when Weathers opened. When they left, they made room for customers like Media resident Patrick Anderson.

"Being in business myself," he said, "I feel their pain. There's no loyalty anymore . . . getting kicked by the wayside."

Anderson had come for a desperation deal: Maybe he would find something for his 17-year-old daughter, Jayna.

"It's capitalism," Jayna shrugged.

Salesmen popped in and out of chairs, and Mattero couldn't keep up with the sales documents she was processing.

At 4:30, activity screeched to a halt, and attention turned to a TV news segment, The Last Day at Weathers Dodge, localizing Chrysler's bankruptcy through the dealership. A Technicolor preview of a funeral for a business not dead yet. Employees stood and stared, as though in prayer.

When the reporter signed off, the frenzy resumed.

"We're all set," said Tague, stepping away from a customer. "I just need 20 seconds to breathe."

Just before 5 o'clock, the bankruptcy court made the ruling Weathers had been awaiting. The judge approved the company's request to eliminate 789 dealers.

"So," Junior said, "midnight tonight's it."

The next day, a new Chrysler would emerge, run not by Michigan executives reporting to private equity owners, but by Italian bigwigs, under the leadership of Fiat's Sergio Marchionne.

"It's just as well," Junior said. "No sense prolonging things."

There had been talk of throwing a party to mark the end of their family's legacy. Instead, Larry III was too busy hosing down just-sold cars in his dress slacks. At 7:30 he brought in pizzas, sodas, and paper plates.

That was all father and son could manage in the end: lukewarm pizza for the weary staff and last-minute buyers. Customers smiled as they tore into slices while salesmen kept plugging away.

Back in the service department, all was still. Outside, the spots that new cars, trucks, and minivans had occupied were now empty. The old dealership died, drenched in a kaleidoscope of fading color from a sky brushed with storm clouds.

Contact staff writer Maria Panaritis at 215-854-2431 or mpanaritis@phillynews.com.