Ron Tonkin, the Oregon auto dealer who crusaded against overbearing factories while president of the National Automobile Dealers Association in 1989, has died at age 82.
Tonkin, who founded the Ron Tonkin Family of Dealerships in Portland, Ore., died Friday of end-stage renal failure, according to the Web site for The Oregonian newspaper.
Tonkin became known as a firebrand for dealers for his forceful pushback against automakers during his one-year leadership of NADA beginning in February 1989.
While president of the dealers’ association, Tonkin railed against manufacturers’ fleet subsidies, retail rebates, cost transfers and mandatory advertising association memberships. In founding a group of dealers called the Rough Riders, he encouraged dealers to resist manufacturers’ attempts to force excess inventories onto dealership lots.
During a stirring opening address at the 1990 NADA convention, Tonkin announced he was suing Chrysler, Ford, General Motors and Toyota over fleet subsidies. He accused the manufacturers of unfairly paying fleet incentives that allowed the car rental companies to buy vehicles at prices below dealer invoice. That lawsuit ultimately was settled out of court.
At that 1990 convention, Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca followed Tonkin on the NADA stage and good-naturedly referred to Tonkin as a “pain in the ass.”
In addition to Tonkin’s preaching to dealers on stage, he also wrote a letter to NADA members urging them to lower their inventories to send a message to the automakers.
“What we did best was draw visibility to the issues that confronted dealers and concerned consumers,” Tonkin said later about his turn as NADA’s leader.
Such actions ultimately drew the attention of the U.S. Justice Department, which in 1994 began an investigation into alleged antitrust activities by NADA and its presidents dating back to Tonkin. In 1995, NADA agreed to a settlement. Though it admitted no wrongdoing, the association promised not to engage in antitrust activities and agreed to 10 years of Justice Department monitoring.
In 2009, Automotive News ranked Tonkin as one of the industry’s 50 Visionary Dealers.
Tonkin opened his first dealership, Ron Tonkin Chevrolet, in 1960, according to the dealership group’s Web site, which also said he became the country’s first Ferrari dealer in 1966.
Today, the group operates 16 dealerships representing 15 brands. It ranks No. 98 on the Automotive News list of the top 125 dealership groups in the United States, with new retail sales of 8,291 vehicles in 2012.
“I don’t know if I’d be good at anything else,” Tonkin said in a 1996 interview. “But I do know that I can turn a dealership around, get it selling cars, get it making money again.”
Tonkin stepped back from day-to-day oversight of the dealership group after a prostate cancer scare in the mid-’90s. Sons Ed and Brad have operated the franchises since then.
Ed Tonkin followed in his father’s footsteps as head of NADA — the title had changed to chairman — in 2010. He lauded his father’s legacy at the time.
“My dad was a phenomenal NADA president,” Ed Tonkin told Automotive News. “Critical times call for critical measures. At that time, the dealers were really getting beat up with fleet subsidies, and he was the cause that really put an end to that. He really made a mark.”
In 2006, Tonkin summed up his view on the franchise system.
“There is no better way,” Tonkin told Automotive News. “The automakers that produce the cars are really not good at selling them. Every time they have made an attempt, it has resulted in failure. It’s a different side of the business. They have to make them, and we have to sell them.
“The automobile industry is like a three-legged milk stool: the unions, auto manufacturers and the dealers. Remove any one of the legs and the stool falls over.”