Dealership opens for Chinese vehicle

December 22, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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The three-wheeled Wildfire "autocycle" isn't exactly selling like wildfire here, but give it time and a return to higher gasoline prices.

Jerry Persons, a Hudsonville businessman who opened a Wildfire dealership on South Division in Cutlerville in the fall, said he has only sold a couple so far: one to a relative and one to a family friend. He blames the lack of sales on a combination of things, namely gas prices that have dipped below $2 a gallon and a constricted credit market that prevents a lot of people from buying a lot of things nationwide.

Then there is the onset of harsh winter weather, which doesn't encourage people to shop for new vehicles.

"We got into it late," said Persons, noting that the first Wildfires arrived at his dealership in October. He tried to open Autocycle Sales last summer, when gas prices were up to $4 a gallon. Now, he said, "it's Michigan winter — and fuel prices have come down."

The Wildfire, which is made in China for Wildfire Motors of Steubenville, Ohio, has a two-cylinder, liquid-cooled, 650cc engine that gets up to 60 miles per gallon. A basic no-frills Wildfire costs around $6,500, according to Persons.

Helping to keep the vehicle cost down is the fact that it is legally classified by the federal government as a motorcycle and can be registered as such in Michigan — because it only has three wheels.

Technically being a motorcycle also exempts the Wildfire from "crash standards, air bags, bumper height safety (requirements) — all that stuff" that the federal government requires on four-wheeled vehicles, said Persons.

The basic Wildfire, which can seat four people in the van model or two in the pickup model, is "a little primitive by American automobile standards," said Persons, so he offers options that he installs himself at the dealership. The modifications start with better tires and wheels and a different suspension to lower the vehicle’s center of gravity, making it more stable. A better paint job and interior finishing and carpeting like that of a standard car also are available. A Wildfire upgraded with the works will cost about $9,500.

"We think it's the 20-something crowd that's going to want them," said Persons, describing the younger generation as "more flexible" in their outlook on transportation. They also tend to be the population segment that can least afford the high gas prices of last summer.

He noted, however, that there are a significant number of people over 50 who have stopped at the dealership to look at the Wildfires on display.

The Wildfire, which only comes with a manual transmission, can reach speeds of 70 miles per hour but has a recommended cruising speed of about 45. Persons said it would be ideal as a local delivery vehicle for a small business.

"People are fascinated by it," said Persons, noting that many drivers passing by on South Division do a double take and then come back for a closer look.

As for marketing, Persons said a Wildfire is driven around inside the arena during intermissions at the racing events held regularly at the DeltaPlex Arena & Conference Center on Turner Avenue in Grand Rapids.

He believes there is a lot of potential for a very low-cost new vehicle in the U.S. market. Wildfires are now being sold "all over the country," said Persons.

So far, Persons and just one other person are operating Autocycle Sales, including making the modifications on the vehicles after they arrive.

Previously, Persons was in the mortgage business for about 17 years, but he said he gave that up in June. With the collapse of the credit markets, the mortgage industry is "no fun anymore," he said.

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