O.C. Wallows in Bankruptcy, but Luxury Car Business Brisk : Marketing: Purchases by affluent county residents boost high-end dealerships into top ranks nationally.


Orange County's government is bankrupt and most residents have been telling pollsters for four years now that they are financially pinched and not expecting things to get much better, but a stubborn pocket of affluence persists.

Despite bad-mouthing the economy, county residents continued to buy new cars--especially expensive luxury models--at an impressive pace in 1994, according to Automotive News, an industry journal.

A pair of Orange County dealers finished one-two in the rankings. Mercedes-Benz House of Imports in Buena Park sold 1,451 of the German luxury cars, and Fletcher Jones Motor Cars in Newport Beach sold 1,216. That's roughly one for every 300 households in the county.

And if it seems that every luxury car on the road that isn't a Benz is a Beemer, maybe it's because three of BMW's top 10 dealers are in Southern California, including Crevier BMW in Santa Ana, which ranked third with 905 cars sold. Nick Alexander Imports in Los Angeles was seventh with 858 and Pacific BMW in Glendale was 10th with 819 new car sales.

The country's third biggest Rolls Royce dealer is Newport Rolls Royce in Newport Beach, which sold 18 of Britain's best last year. The top Rolls dealer, with 30 sales, is just 35 miles away in Beverly Hills.

Automotive News' annual ranking of the 10 top dealers for each of the 36 makes of cars sold in the United States last year put Southern California at the top of the heap: 39 of the 360 largest volume dealers were in just three Southland counties. Los Angeles led the pack with 32; Orange County had five, and San Diego had two.

Other luxury cars with top-10 dealers in Southern California--none in Orange County--included Jaguar, Land Rover and Porsche with two dealers each and Cadillac and Lexus with one apiece.

The sales say a lot about consumer psychology, said Adrian Sanchez, regional economist for First Interstate Bancorp in Los Angeles.

"Almost everybody says things don't look good when you ask about the outlook," he said.

"But when you start asking about their own jobs or businesses, they tell you they just had their best year and that things, for them, are going good. I've always contended that our perceptions lag reality, often by a pretty good stretch of time."

As a dose of reality, Orange County residents who had the yen for a European import but didn't have the bucks for a luxury nameplate made Santa Ana's Commonwealth Volkswagen the nation's third largest VW dealership.

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