A half-dozen trailers rolled up to Eckenhoff Cadillac Buick Pontiac GMC in Jenkintown bright and early and wiped the lot clean of $8.4 million in inventory - Hummers, Cadillacs and all.
"Load up, leave. Load up, leave. . . ." The funereal rhythm of repossession transfixed the sales guys next door at Hopkins Ford Lincoln Mercury, who watched through their showroom window as the devastating news descended on their neighbor.
GMAC, the beleaguered financing arm of General Motors Corp., had called the loan that had enabled Scott Eckenhoff to stock new and used vehicles. Big trailers carted away the collateral from a Big Three retailer that had been hanging on by a thread.
GMAC also cleared out Eckenhoff's used-car lot in Maple Shade, which held another batch financed by a GMAC "floor-plan" credit line.
It was a dramatic turn for a dealer whose struggle, while perhaps extreme, is but the beginning, some say, of a broader reckoning that will shutter more Big Three - GM, Ford and Chrysler - showrooms in the months to come. About two dozen have been shut down in the region over the last 12 to 24 months, according to one industry watcher.
"When it happens next door to you, it's just a vivid reminder that you can't relax in this economy for one minute," said Bob Sklar, sales manager at Hopkins Ford, where business has remained relatively strong.
The recession that has battered global auto sales and put U.S. automakers in acute financial distress has also squeezed lenders to such a degree that dealers who rely on their credit lines to fill their lots - men like Eckenhoff - have little room for error.
The grim scene, which played out two weeks ago, while evoking sympathy, also conveyed an urgent message to those hoping to protect their business as the auto industry continues to contract.
"You have to stay on top of your game," said Sklar, 65, a straight-talker who wears cuff links to work and has managed sales crews for a quarter-century. "You have to maximize your opportunities. You have to do what you have to do to make a deal."
Eckenhoff, 48, thought he had done just that, despite defaulting on his GMAC financing agreement.
In May, when GMAC first said it planned to drop his loan, Eckenhoff negotiated the first of several extensions and searched for another lender to finance his inventory - a task made even harder after the financial markets crashed and banks became far pickier about loan policies.
The third-generation car dealer cut inventory, slashed expenses, and tried to raise cash. Two months ago, he laid off 48 workers to bring expenses in line with low sales.
Eckenhoff was not alone; other area GM dealers have been squeezed by tightened lending as GMAC has sought to trim its auto portfolio and make up for losses it suffered in the subprime market.
Some franchise owners are trying to sell their dealerships while others are rolling the dice and trying to hang on.
GM has told Congress it plans to eliminate a quarter of its dealerships by 2012.
The Detroit automaker recently told Congress the majority of showrooms to be eliminated would be in metropolitan and suburban areas, where its decades-old network is now considered bloated and noncompetitive.
Eckenhoff's time all but ran out when representatives from GMAC paid him a visit earlier this month, he said.
"They came into my dealership. They said, 'Scott, we want to talk to you.' They said, 'Scott, we've decided to take back the cars.' I said, 'Guys, you can't take back the cars.' "
Over the next two days, the cars - the fuel of Eckenhoff's business - were removed.
"I never anticipated this," he said.
Two years ago, Eckenhoff employed 80 people. Two months ago, he chopped that down to about 30. Now he is at 18, including four mechanics keeping his service bays running for repairs on all models.
All that remained in the center of his bare and dark showroom Friday was a Hummer with a giant red holiday ribbon draped over its hood and a white Christmas bear in a Santa hat and red sweater atop the roof. The empty lot was deserted.
Eckenhoff said he was trying to stay open while trying to salvage what was left of his franchise.
GMAC spokesman Mike Stoller declined to discuss Eckenhoff's specific case but said inventory recalls typically occur after a dealer defaults on loan payments.
"That is usually the final stage, which would require us to reclaim our assets that were used as collateral," Stoller said. "It's pretty simple. If the bills aren't being paid, therein lies the trigger."
Inventory loans are critical - and in the crosshairs of today's credit crunch. Dealers order cars, pay the factory with a floor-plan credit line from a bank or a financier such as GMAC, and then pay interest while the cars sit on lots. As each car is sold, the dealer pays back the lender.
If the lender cancels the credit line and a dealer cannot find alternative financing - as was the case with Eckenhoff - the dealer must sell his franchise, terminate it, or lose his inventory.
Without inventory, business effectively stops, and the dealer's franchise agreement with the manufacturer is jeopardized. Such a violation of the franchise agreement makes it easier for an automaker to shut down a dealer, who then stands to lose what in Eckenhoff's case was $3 million in personal investment to start up the business.
This is why some locals suspect GMAC is working with GM to clamp down on sites that GM would like to see eliminated from the grid - even though GM has not released a list of targeted dealerships.
"Some dealers believe it's just part of GM's plan to proactively reduce the number of dealerships, and that's one way to do it," said Richard Weitzman of Staubach Retail's auto group practice in Bala Cynwyd.
Weitzman, who brokers land transactions for local auto dealers, said there is a growing sense that GMAC is coming down hard on some dealers for GM, which is hoping to avert bankruptcy through steep restructuring.
GMAC's Stoller said this was "not the case. GMAC continues to extend credit when there is an appropriate business case for doing so."
Asked if GMAC was singling out GM's weakest dealers, he said: "We are prudently managing our portfolio for risk in a consistent manner."
Eckenhoff, who leases the land here, said he was working on a deal to save his franchise. Meanwhile, he hopes GM agrees to buy back from GMAC his new cars for the same price he paid. He also hopes GMAC gets good prices at auction for his used cars.
If GMAC gets less than what Eckenhoff paid, he will owe GMAC hundreds of thousands of dollars - if not more.
Eckenhoff is beside himself with worry and regret.
"When something like this happens, it's about what happens in the economy. And if you can't adjust, you're out of business. And so be it."