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Dodge titan since '22 gone like that

Lawrence Weathers Sr. died in 1997 at the age of 98. Which means he didn't live to see Weathers Dodge in his rearview mirror.

Lawrence Weathers Sr. died in 1997 at the age of 98.

Which means he didn't live to see Weathers Dodge in his rearview mirror.

And maybe that's just as well. It would have broken his heart to learn that the little Lima Dodge dealership he founded in 1922 was among 789 franchises that the bankrupt Chrysler L.L.C. will eliminate in June as part of its restructuring plan.

Mr. Weathers' 78-year-old son, dealership president Lawrence Weathers Jr., and his grandson, general manager Lawrence Weathers 3d, hope to replace their Dodge dealership with either another franchise or an operation that services Dodges and sells used cars. But either way, it won't be Weathers Dodge. That Baltimore Pike institution, believed to be the oldest extant car franchise in Delaware County, is hurrying into history.

All that will be left of it, really, is Mr. Weathers' work ethic and the commitment to customer satisfaction that he passed on to his son and grandson.

"I learned [from him] that the car business takes your full time," said his son. "And I learned that in order to succeed, you must take care of the customer."

Mr. Weathers' grandson recalled his grandfather's "long, hard hours" and the emphasis he placed on "putting people first."

Indeed, Mr. Weathers was a poster boy for the work ethic. He quit school at 11 to help his crippled father run a general store. After he started his car business a dozen years later, he spent decades working six days a week from 7:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.

"Sometimes I'd work Sundays, too," he once told me, "but only until 6."

When I met him in the early '90s, he was "retired," which meant the then-94-year-old was working from 8:30 a.m. to noon in the parts department "doing jobs no one else wants to do."

But in the end, hard work and all those customer service awards couldn't sway the folks in Chrysler's countinghouse.

"When I learned that we were on the list, I called the manager of [Chrysler's Middle Atlantic] Business Center," said Weathers Jr. "He just kept saying they had a matrix and that people fell into slots. . . . I said, 'Can't we talk?' He said, 'There's no talking. That's the end, that's it.' "

While Weathers Jr. was shocked when the ax fell, the blow wasn't really from out of the blue. He knew that Chrysler, like the other domestics, had been talking for years about shrinking its dealer body to bring it in line with the diminished sales engendered by the imports. He also learned at a meeting three years ago that single-point dealerships (those selling just one of Chrysler's three brands) were an endangered species.

"But at the time," he remembered, "they told us nothing would be done [to Weathers Dodge] because we had been here so long."

But when bankruptcy push came to restructuring shove, business trumped longevity.

"Location was one thing against us, the fact that we were at the center of three locations picked to be three-line dealerships," Weathers Jr. observed.

Ironically, two of those three dealers came on the scene because of Weathers Jr.'s generosity.

"When Chrysler was adding dealerships 30 years ago, they wanted to put in two of those dealerships. I could have objected, and they would not have been able to put them in. But I didn't think they were going to hurt us, so I didn't.

"I tried to be a team player, and it doesn't work."

Losing the franchise also means considerable financial fallout for the Weatherses. The way things are shaping up, Weathers Jr. expects to lose "in the vicinity of $100,000" on his new cars.

"And everything with 'Dodge' on it will have to be thrown out, from stationery and business cards to our Web site."

Weathers Jr. is hopeful that he won't also have to throw out any of his 27 employees, that a new business will keep them on the job.

While he and his son will look around for another new car franchise, the most likely next step will be a used-car and service operation.

"My son's more upbeat than I am," said Weathers Jr. "He doesn't think we'll have any trouble transitioning to service and used cars."

While he may not be quite as sure it won't be a rocky road, he is sure he'll stick around to help make it as smooth as possible.

"I'm 78, and I always figured I'd stay with the business until I'm 80," he said.

Who knows? Maybe he'll end up working from 8:30 to noon in the parts department, doing jobs no one else wants to do.