Back in 1968 when I first went into the retail car business with my father, I can remember asking him, “What is holdback?” I was learning the business and had been studying the invoices on new Pontiacs that General Motors sent us when they shipped a new car that we had ordered. We had to pay the invoice immediately when it was issued, sometimes even before the car arrived at our dealership. Actually, in most cases, it was our bank or GMAC who paid GM and we borrowed the money from them to pay for the car.
My father’s answer to my question about holdback was that it was an increase in the amount of the invoice that we paid General Motors which was not really part of the price of the car. It was just an extra amount added to the real price of the car and included in the invoice. At that time it was 2% of the MSRP [suggested retail], so if a new Pontiac Bonneville had an MSRP of $10,000 and a true cost of $9,000, the factory invoice would be $9,200. I asked my father, “When do we get the $200 back?” He said, “At the end of the year”. I asked him if they paid us interest on our money and I can remember him laughing loudly and saying no.
Of course my next question was why they do that. He told me that the reason they gave him was to be help dealers sell their cars for more money so that they didn’t go broke. He said that because they didn’t get their holdback money for such a long period of time, they began to think of their invoice as being the actual cost of the car. General Motors felt that many dealers were such poor businessmen that they might sell their cars so cheaply that they would go out of business. Now, because GM was kind enough to hold back hundreds of thousands of dollars of the dealers’ money [and pay them no interest on it] but return the money to them once a year, they could help the dealers make a bigger profit and maintain adequate working capital.
At that time I thought this was the biggest bunch of boloney I had ever heard and I was sure that this was a scheme by the manufacturers to keep a free float of millions of dollars of their dealers’ money under the guise of helping the dealers. I asked my father why the dealers didn’t strongly object to this and he said that most dealers actually “liked” the idea of holdback. When I heard that, I thought that maybe GM and the manufacturers were right about the dealers not being smart enough to sell their cars for a reasonable profit.
It took me a few more years in the business before I understood what was really going on with holdback. It was a “no brainer” as to why the manufacturers liked it but at last I understood its attraction to us dealers. Because we had to pay an extra amount over the true price of the car and not see that money for up to a year, we began to think of the invoice as the true price, even though it was actually inflated by hundreds of dollars. Because all manufacturers added holdback to all dealers invoices, the net effect was to raise the price of all cars to all buyers by the amount of this holdback. I know this is a dirty word, but it is price fixing on the grandest of scales. This might have been something that Henry Ford, Alfred Sloan, and Walter Chrysler concocted while playing golf at Bloomfield Hills Country Club outside of Detroit.
Another neat thing about holdback for us dealers is being able to tell our customers that we are only charging them “X dollars” over invoice. Or, we can tell them that we will sell them this car at invoice with no profit to us at all! [There’s a sucker born every minute] Dealers often have “invoice sales” with copies of the invoice pasted on the car windows. Who doesn’t believe that an invoice is the cost of the car? The truth is in the semantic skullduggery …”Mr. Customer, I solemnly swear to you that this the exact price that I paid the factory for this car. In fact, here’s a copy of the invoice.” That’s what the dealer “paid” the factory all right, but it’s not what the he paid the factory after he got his holdback check in the mail.
You might be thinking, so we’re talking about $200 more or less on a $10,000 car. Who cares? Don’t forget, that was over 40 years ago. Holdbacks have expanded considerably and now instead of several hundred dollars we’re talking several thousand. Also, dealers no longer have to wait a year to get their hold back money back. Now they get it back monthly. Manufacturers even changed the names of these monies they hold back. These are innocuous names so that, if you see them on the invoice, you will have no suspicion…names like floorplan assistance, advertising, PDI, Administrative or DAP. Of course there are also cash rebates to dealers that don’t even show on the invoice. I estimate the average car invoice today includes $3,000 to $4,000 in hidden holdbacks to the dealer. Holdbacks are also applied to factory or distributor accessories like “protection packages” [wax, undercoat, window etch, roadside assistance], floor mats, window tint, etc.
The bottom line is that you don’t rely on the dealer’s factory invoice to determine the price you are willing to pay for a car. And be especially suspicions when the dealer quotes you a price of “X dollars over invoice” or actually shows you the invoice. You’ve heard the old joke, “How can you tell when a politician is lying?” Answer: When his lips are moving. “How can you tell when a car dealer is lying?” Answer: When he shows you the invoice.