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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.
"They say: 'She lost money. She has a brand that is not safe. She's 71 years old, She has no plan on her succession. We don't want her any more.'," Hetzer told Reuters.
"And that's happening to a company that's almost 90 years old. No one has confidence in you any more. It's really depressing. I've already cut my own salary and cut back on everything else I could. We're fighting and fighting," she said.
Turnaround at Hetzer's company had been around 30 million euros per year in normal times, she said. She declined to provide details on the losses she incurred last year.
Hetzer said over past weeks, relief to business had come through a government incentive that was part of a 50 billion euro economic stimulus package and which encourages owners of cars nine years or older to scrap their car in exchange for 2,500 euros toward the purchase of a new one.
"It's had a great effect," said Hetzer, adding she had sold some 120 cars this month already, compared to only 10 vehicles sold in February last year. Ironically, her dealership even struggled to meet clients' high demand for small cars, she said.
"But the measure is a flash in the pan. The effect won't last," she said, adding demand would drop immediately once the premium no longer applied in a few months time.
"And we're offering large discounts on our cars in order to compete. Although we're selling more, we're not actually making much money due to the rebates," she said.
Hetzer vowed to race on to the finish, saying her son had agreed to give up his career in renewable energies to help her.
"That's one good thing about the crisis. It brings people together," she said.
Reporting by Kerstin Gehmlich, editing by Paul Casciato