THEY CALLED IT "AUTO ROW," the 10-mile stretch of Virginia Route 7 banked with gleaming chrome. Families with kids came here, young hot-rodders and retirees, all to kick the tires. But now land values outside Washington, D.C., are soaring so high that car dealers are priced off the lots. Fading away is another bit of small-business Americana.

Auto dealers around the nation are hitting the road again. Soaring land values pushed them from city to suburb in the late 1960s, then to the far suburbs in the 1970s. Now development is uprooting them again: many dealers are losing their leases or selling their land.

Where to now? Some dealers are moving still further into exurbia; some are opening joint autoparks, multidealer groups that share land and facilities. Others are putting small branch showrooms, often with computerized catalogs, into malls and other high-traffic areas. They exile the service and parts divisions to a less costly location.

Experts are sure that customers won't trade a turn behind the wheel for a seat at the computer terminal. "They gotta smell 'em; they gotta drive 'em," says John Rummel, a Dodge dealer in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. "You've still gotta have something to touch."

Published on: Mar 1, 1986