Follow the Salesmen How Industry Insiders Challenged the Car Lobby

Chuck Frank is the son of a man who billed himself as “The World’s Largest Chevy Dealer.” But Frank never wanted to sell cars. As a boy, his favorite pastimes were camping and fishing. He wanted an outdoor career, but that seemed impossible for a kid from Chicago. “If I’d known then what I know now I probably would have gone to law school and become an environmental lawyer,” he says. “But that field was just getting started back then, in 1974.” Insted, he thought forestry was the only environmental career option, but says, “I didn’t know anything about agriculture or trees or botany. I just didn’t see myself as a forest ranger.”

So Frank took over the family business, becoming president of Z Frank Chevrolet. He sold cars from a busy lot on the North Side, and got his nature fix by carrying a Sierra Club card and vacationing in Alaska and Argentina. Then Frank’s wife developed asthma, and hebegan to feel uneasy about how his Chevys were polluting the air. He also realized he was in a unique position to influence the auto industry. General Motors wouldn’t listen to an environmentalist. But it would listen to one of its most successful dealers.

When Frank wrote his will, he left the Sierra Club a large sum. As a result, he was invited to join its national advisory council, a group of big donors. The next year he went to the annual meeting in Washington, D.C.”I had some real concerns about getting involved in the club, being a car dealer selling Tahoes and Suburbans,” he says. “I didn’t know if I’d be viewed as the enemy. But people loved the fact that a large car dealer would be interested.”

In 2001, when Sierra Club officials met with Vice President Dick Cheney’s staff to talk about raising fuel efficiency standards, they brought Frank along. Frank got nowhere with Cheney, who once told an audience in Michigan that the Bush administration would never raise the miles-per-gallon standard on American cars. But last year, he tookpart in the first successful effort to raise Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards in 23 years. Along with a former Ford chemist, a United Auto Workers official and a fellow car dealer from Maine, Frank lent his name to a group called The Auto Lobby Doesn’t Speak For Us. Together, they signed a letter urging Congress “to raise fuel economy standards to 35 miles per gallon by 2020.”

Last December, Congress did just that. In a compromise with automakers, it passed an energy bill that will eventually set fleet-wide CAFE standards at 35 mpg for cars, SUVs and light trucks, making an exception for heavy-duty pickups.

Another signer, Adam Lee, president of Maine’s Lee Auto Malls, sees higher mileage as more than an environmental issue. It’s a good business practice, he says. “My livelihood and the livelihood of the over 350 employees who work for us depend on the success of the American automobile industry,” Lee says. “Today, that strength is severely compromised by the lack of fuel-efficient cars and trucks that customers want to buy. As the price of gasoline has gone up, we’ve been offering bigger and bigger discounts, and the manufacturers are offering bigger and bigger incentives to get people to buy our cars, and all of our profits are being eroded.”

The auto industry often needs a legislative push—it resisted seatbelts, air bags, unleaded gasoline and catalytic converters until the government mandated them, Lee says. Frank agrees, because not even over $4-a-gallon prices have significantly reduced gasoline use.

“The demand up until now would not drive higher mileage,” he says. Plus, “all the societal costs [pollution, war] of gasoline are not factored into the price.” Gary Muenzhuber, an official with a United Auto Workers local in Minneapolis, became an industry rebel when he helped found a group called Autoworkers of Minnesota, which is working with a Wisconsin inventor to develop a battery-powered Ford Ranger. Muenzhuber thought it might be a way to save a Ranger plant in Highland Park, Minnesota. It wasn”t. The plant is scheduled to close next year. But he still believes that alternative fuel sources and higher mileage are necessary to save industry jobs. Muenzhuber considers himself part of a “blue-green alliance” between laborers and environmentalists.

“GM and Ford have the technologies on the shelf to get us higher mileage,” he says. Of course, speaking out for higher mileage is not a popular position in the industry. Frank admits that he’s “sure had some flak from the auto companies. I told them that these are my personal opinions, and I don’t represent anyone but myself.”

At one time, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the industry’s most powerful lobbying group, treated Frank as a heretic on a misbegotten crusade, brushing off his fight for higher mileage with a dismissive “he’s alone on that.” Last year, though, it seemed that Frank and the auto industry were finally in agreement. After the energy bill passed, the Alliance issued a statement praising its new mileage standards.

“For the first time in more than 30 years, Congress has weighed in and established aggressive fuel economy standards that balance important environmental, energy security, safety and economic considerations,” President and CEO Dave McCurdy said. “This legislation will result in a 40 percent increase in fuel economy and 30 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions from new automobiles, enhancing our energy security while at the same time addressing climate change.”

Frank takes that with a grain of salt. “They only came out in favor of it after it passed,” he scoffs. “They fought it every step of the way, and when it passed, they said it was a great bill. They were lobbying aggressively to water down the bill any way they could.”

Two car salesmen and an auto worker were lobbying right back, and for once, their voices were louder than the Big Three’s.