Used cars and shiny new Mercedes-Benzes crowd the slope below the showroom and cram every niche around the tight property of Estate Motors in Goldens Bridge.
That is an image that the luxury brand wants to discourage, so Mercedes-Benz USA has notified Estate Motors that it will terminate the dealership agreement in November.
That’s a “death penalty,” the dealership states in a lawsuit that accuses Mercedes of coercion and seeks to block the termination.
The dispute goes to the heart of who controls an automobile dealership.
Estate Motors was established in Mount Kisco in 1963 and moved to Goldens Bridge in 1970. The dealership’s customers include Mercedes drivers in both Westchester and Fairfield counties. It is positioned on Route 22 along Interstate 684, amidst the wealth of northern Westchester County, where it has served people like the late actor Fred Gwynne – Herman of “The Munsters” television show – Yankees Manager Joe Girardi, and other actors and athletes whose privacy the dealership owner doesn’t want to violate.
Mary Higgins Clark, the author of suspense novels, has a heroine in one of her books saying she’s passing the Mercedes dealership on I-684, according to Nancy Buonanno, wife of the owner.
Charles Buonanno, an electrical engineer by training, fell in love with Mercedes-Benzes during a business trip to Berlin in 1962. He paid $3,000 to have one shipped home. Five years later, he paid $40,000 for a 40 percent share of Estate Motors.
A new model cost $10,000 then, a price that Buonanno thought no one would be willing to pay. George C. Scott, the actor, director and producer, bought one.
By 1974, Buonanno owned the whole business. He built a new service department at the top of the hill, 100 yards from the main building that was built in 1938.
By the late 1990s, needing more room, he came up with a plan to expand the service building. He said he spent eight years and more than $1 million getting approval from the town of Lewisboro.
That’s when the trouble began, Buonanno said. Mercedes knew about his efforts, but only after the town approved his plan did the company say he could not have two buildings.
A Mercedes spokeswoman said she could not respond while the matter is in litigation, except to say, “It flows from our commitment to provide image-commensurate representation for our products and for our customers.”
Every dealership design detail is covered by Mercedes’ Autohaus compliance program. “That means basically you have to do what they say,” Buonanno said in an interview. “You have to paint your building a certain color. You have to use certain furniture.”
“When I started out with them, it was like we all were working together. It was fun. Now, we’re working for them.”
Buonanno put together a second plan to tear down the service center, build a new one and connect it to the showroom for $25 million. Mercedes approved it, he said, but warned it would not be in compliance in five years. He wasn’t willing to invest in such a short-term project.
The dealership worked on a third plan to renovate a warehouse in Mount Kisco. Mercedes approved that plan, but Buonanno decided against it when the costs didn’t make sense.
A year ago, Mercedes demanded that Estate Motors comply with requirements for space, brand image and corporate identity.
The Goldens Bridge site resembles a used car lot.
Exterior signs date to the 1990s and are extremely weathered and in poor condition, the letter states. The exterior “is filthy and weathered with little or no maintenance or upkeep over the years.” The showroom and service reception area are so small that customers are “unable to properly view our full line of products in a clean and controlled environment.” And the dealership’s lounges don’t provide “a world-class experience,” the automaker claimed. The letter also noted that Buonanno’s service department needs two more work bays and the wash and detail area needs two more stalls.
Mercedes demanded that Estate come up with a satisfactory plan for a new facility and build it by October 2017.
“I know what the place looks like,” Buonanno said. “I don’t like it either.”
But it is Mercedes who is blocking development, he said. And he has no choice but to make his cramped hillside work because no suitable land is available elsewhere.
By spring of this year Buonanno had made a deal to sell Estate Motors to Thomas Maoli, a Parsippany, New Jersey dealer who operates BMW, Lexus, Maserati and Saab dealerships. Mercedes conditionally approved Maoli’s plan to build a new facility at Goldens Bridge. But in July the sale fell through.
Mercedes notified Buonanno on Aug. 12 that it would terminate Estate Motor’s dealer agreement in 90 days for breach of obligations.
Deficiencies in Goldens Bridge are “not merely aesthetic,” the company said. “They affect the dealership’s ability to effectively perform its responsibilities.”
Last month, Estate Motors sued Mercedes in U.S. District Court in White Plains. The dealer agreement, the lawsuit states, was written solely by Mercedes and is one-sided.
It says Mercedes violated the federal Auto Dealers Day in Court Act and state Motor Vehicle Dealer Act that were enacted to alleviate unequal bargaining power and to protect dealers’ investments.
Buonanno wants to find a buyer but the termination notice chills interest in the business and decreases its market value, the lawsuit states.
He wants the court to declare the termination unlawful and prohibit Mercedes from interfering with his right to transfer assets.
“This is my life,” said Buonanno, who turns 83 in November. “I’ve spent most of my life here and I would like to see it prosper.”
“I would like to get it in shape and pass it on before I pass on.”