Car crisis toughest test for doyenne of dealers

Wed Feb 25, 2009 1:26pm EST
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By Kerstin Gehmlich

BERLIN (Reuters Life!) - Car dealer Heidi Hetzer has fought chauvinism as a female mechanic and triumphed in dozens of motor rallies, but the 71-year-old Berliner says the auto crisis is proving to be the toughest test of her life.

The resolute blonde, who has been running one of the capital city's biggest car dealerships for 40 years, says she suffered large losses at her Opel dealership in 2008 and will have to lay off a third of her 120 staff by the end of this year.

"I'm driving the most difficult race of my life. And I want to reach the finishing line," said Hetzer, who has won more than 100 prizes in international rallies and is still competing.

"This time, I do not even want to beat my competitors. I just want to get to the finish. That's all."

Hetzer, who likes to appear in race cap and goggles at glitzy society events, has sold and raced Opel cars all her life. She is warily watching the trouble at Opel's parent General Motors and in the overall European car market.

New car sales in Germany, western Europe's largest auto market, contracted by 14 percent in January, data show, highlighting the threat to the more than 700,000 people employed in the domestic automotive and part supplier industry.

Adding to problem of weak demand, the future of carmaker Opel also looks uncertain due to the financial troubles at GM. Opel needs some 3.3 billion euros ($4.23 billion) to keep afloat through the end of 2011, a source told Reuters last week.

Opel's shaky status and weak sales made it hard for dealers like Hetzer to receive new loans from banks, she said.   Continued...

<p>Cars and trucks caught up in a traffic jam at the highway A9 in the morning hours north of Munich February 11, 2009. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle</p>