For more than 30 years, my dealership, DeLuca Toyota, has provided the Ocala area with sales and service of quality Toyota vehicles. I am proud of this, but recent events and recalls and investigations have been a challenge. I never had any doubt about the quality of our vehicles, and finally, after a thorough investigation, the government has agreed.

Reproduced with permission from the Ocala Star Banner:

By Fred Hiers
Staff writer

Published: Wednesday, February 23, 2011 at 5:53 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, February 23, 2011 at 5:53 p.m.

This time a year ago, Toyota Motor Corp. was well into its second vehicle recall and the company that made its reputation on safety and quality was watching its sales and image sullied with each new headline.

Frank DeLuca, owner of DeLuca Toyota in Ocala, saw sales at his State Road 200 facility drop as much as 15 percent.

“Phones at first were ringing off the hook” as Toyota owners learned of necessary repairs to their cars, DeLuca recalled.

Then came complaints that Toyota’s cars accelerated on their own due to suspected faulty electrical and computer problems.

DeLuca, who started his sales franchise in 1978, said his faith in Toyota didn’t wane.

“Of the 79,000 (vehicles) we’ve sold … we have not had one single sticking accelerator since we’ve been here,” he said.

Now he and all Toyota dealerships are breathing a sigh of relief. Earlier this month, federal transportation investigators and NASA engineers determined that Toyota electronics were not to blame for the acceleration accidents. The determination ruled out a potentially more complex problem for Toyota vehicles than just a mechanical problem easily remedied.

The international company took more than 8 million vehicles off the road last year because of ill-fitting floormats that caught onto accelerators, mechanically sticking gas pedals, and suspected faulty electrical systems. In response, Toyota dealerships across the world attached ties to keep floormats away from accelerators and attached mechanical devices to keep gas pedals from sticking.

DeLuca said his mechanics worked on as many as 6,000 returned cars during the recall.

The vindication from federal investigators was welcome, DeLuca said Wednesday, but the damage was already done.

While Toyota owners weren’t put off by the recalls when buying new Toyotas, DeLuca said his dealership lost people who never owned a Toyota and were on the fence about purchasing one of his new cars. Many of they went to other brands, instead.

DeLuca said sales have now rebounded to levels 17 percent greater than where they were this time in 2010.

He also plans to expand his business: This past summer he bought 15 additional acres next to his dealership; 5 of the acres front SR 200. The land cost DeLuca about $4.5 million.

He plans to demolish his existing showroom and office space and build a larger facility on the same location later this year. The new facility will include as many as 38 service bays for repairs, up from the current 19.

Despite the recovery, the recalls and the publicity they received are still a sore issue for DeLuca.

He blames the media for blowing the problems out of proportion and the federal government for taking sides against Toyota after bailing out General Motors. He said Congress kept the Toyota acceleration problems in the news in order to help General Motors and other U.S. car manufacturers.

Eventually, federal investigators fined Toyota a record $48.8 million for not reporting and acting on its accelerator problems earlier.

Following the most recent conclusion by investigators — that there were no electrical or computer problems with cars that caused unwanted acceleration issues — DeLuca wants car buyers to be more cautious about accusations that cars might have serious operational problems.

“They should study and look at the philosophy of the company. You don’t go and let one incident determine your faith in that company,” DeLuca said.

“I thank God everyday that I’m a Toyota dealer.”