Final 'Clunkers' Rush As Program Nears End

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Car buyers are rushing into dealers as the Cash for Clunkers' program winds down. It's been so popular that some dealers have stopped participating because of paperwork delays and a shortage of qualifying cars. NPR's Allison Keyes checks in with car dealers in Virginia on the program's last weekend day to see how they are faring.

GUY RAZ, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Car buyers are racing to dealerships as Cash for Clunkers nears the finish line. Make that some dealerships. A number have already stopped sales because of paperwork delays, and others have run out of cars, all thanks to the government rebates that officially end tomorrow night.

More than 700,000 vehicles have been sold under the program, which gives some buyers rebates of up to $4,500. The Obama administration originally set aside a billion dollars to pay for it, but that ran out in just a few days, and Congress tossed in another $2 billion.

NPR's Allison Keyes took a tour of Northern Virginia dealerships on the last weekend day for clunkers.

ALLISON KEYES: Blue and white flags whipped in the wind alongside bouncing red and blue balloons at Koons Ford, Falls Church. And even though the showroom hadn't been open long today, there were already four or five customers walking around the lot, peering earnestly at the sticker prices in the windows of cars.

Russ Freedline(ph) is happily about to trade-in his 2000 Ford Expedition for a shiny, new Ford F150 truck.

Mr. RUSS FREEDLINE: This will be the first brand-new car I ever bought for me.

KEYES: Freedline said he was going to wait until the Clunkers program was originally scheduled to end in November, but since it is ending now, he thought he'd pocket the rebate.

Mr. FREEDLINE: Last night, I (unintelligible) and it started to sputter. I said, hey, if I'm going to have to trade it anyway, I might as well take advantage of it.

KEYES: Would-be shopper Salima Thorpe(ph) had the same idea. She was over at Jack Taylor's Alexandria Toyota. But her brow furrowed as she looked over the obviously depleted lot.

Ms. SALIMA THORPE: I don't see anything left on the lot too much. I really don't see what I really came here for. They may have bought them.

KEYES: Thorpe says her 2003 Toyota Camry doesn't qualify for the program, but she was hoping to find something for her mom. And she was disappointed to hear that this dealership had already ended its Cash for Clunkers program. Thorpe says she was looking for a deal.

Ms. THORPE: I think it's a good program. It's a good incentive that the government is offering. And I wish that there will be more like that in the future. But I really don't think half the people would be out in the dealerships looking for cars if it wasn't for the program.

Mr. JERRY HODGES (Sales Manager, Jack Taylor's Alexandria Toyota): We ended our clunker deal last night. We were here until 11:30.

KEYES: Was it busy?

Mr. HODGES: It was very busy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. HODGES: We were swamped.

KEYES: Jerry Hodges is a manager at this dealer and says it has all but run out of cars.

Mr. HODGES: We've sold a lot of cars that we wouldn't have sold because of the people that were coming in, the people that keep their cars until they die.

KEYES: Hodges says smaller, fuel-efficient cars like Corollas and Camrys sold well and that many people traded vehicles like Ford Explorers and Expeditions and Chevy trucks from the 1990s.

Mr. HODGES: Most of the trade-ins were domestics.

KEYES: Interesting. And then people bought Toyotas?

Mr. HODGES: Yeah.

KEYES: That fact grinds Chuck Miller's gears.

Mr. CHUCK MILLER: I think probably 70 percent of the business is probably done by the imports, and that bothers me to a certain degree.

KEYES: Miller was the finance manager at Ourisman Chrysler, Jeep and Dodge. Sales here were brisk for the last several weeks, and there are only a handful of new cars left on this lot, including a burgundy convertible Sebring. But Miller thinks the program should have focused strictly on U.S. models.

Mr. MILLER: I think the whole program should have been revolving around getting what used to be the Big Three, which is now the Detroit Three, back on their feet and going in the right direction.

KEYES: Miller is also concerned that the clunkers program may leave dealers in a bind in the slower winter months to come. The $3 billion program did help the economy, says Salima Thorpe over at the Toyota dealer, but she worries that any economic stimulation from this clunkers program is only temporary. How, she wonders, will people pay their car loans if jobs continue to vanish?

Allison Keyes, NPR News, Washington.

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