In the summer of 2001 Vice President Dick Cheney's staff invited a group of environmentalists over to the Old Executive Office Building to talk about building more fuel-efficient automobiles.
Dan Becker, the Sierra Club's director of environmental programs, wasn't expecting much from the meeting, but he brought along a surprise expert, a Chicago auto dealer. "We went around the table, and everybody introduced themselves," he says. The auto dealer introduced himself by saying, "I'm Chuck Frank, president of Z Frank Chevrolet in Chicago." Becker remembers that two of Cheney's people--chief of staff Lewis "Scooter" Libby and James Connaughton, a Chicago lawyer who chaired the Council on Environmental Quality--did a double take. Borrowing a line from Annie Hall--when Woody Allen silences a know-it-all pontificating about a writer outside a movie theater by reaching behind a signboard and pulling out the writer himself--Becker said, "Meet Marshall McLuhan."
"They were a little surprised and interested," says Frank, who bills his business as "The World's Largest Chevy Dealer." "I got a few words in. They asked me about supply and demand in the car business. I told them I thought if they raised the standard, the auto companies would build vehicles to the standard and customers would buy the best vehicles."
Cheney's staff countered with the auto industry's most effective argument against mileage standards: If the government raises them automakers will have to build smaller cars, and smaller cars will mean more deaths on the highway.
Frank told them small cars aren't the problem. The problem is SUVs plowing into small cars. "If you allow half the population--and usually it's the wealthier half--to have big vehicles," he said, "then you allow more big vehicles on the road, and it's less safe for small cars."
A month earlier Cheney had told an audience in Michigan that the Bush administration would never raise the miles-per-gallon standard on American cars. Nevertheless, the Sierra Club came into the room proposing that the government require every automaker to produce a fleet that averaged 40 miles per gallon. At the time the standards were 27.5 mpg for cars and 20.7 for "light trucks," which includes pickups, minivans, and SUVs.
"They were unmoved," says Becker. "But they would have been unmoved by anything."
Frank is even more cynical. A few weeks after the meeting he got a call from a staffer at the Council on Environmental Quality thanking him for his testimony. "I still have the voice mail," he says, sitting in his office near the corner of Western and Peterson surrounded by blown-up photos of camping trips to Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Alaska, and Argentina. He punches a few buttons on his phone and out comes the voice of John L. Howard Jr., an aide to Connaughton.
"Charles Frank was very kind to send us a letter about a meeting we recently had on CAFE [Corporate Average Fuel Economy] here in Washington, with Sierra Club and many other folks," says Howard in a Texas drawl. "I appreciated the letter, and I wanted to let Charles know that we appreciate his frank comments on this important issue."
Frank pulls a face.
Howard goes on, "We too are looking forward to moving forward on this issue and have set up a series of future discussions hopefully that will include many folks and have an opportunity to move forward and improve fuel economy."
"You've seen how much they've done to improve fuel-economy standards," says Frank sarcastically.
Actually, in 2003 the Bush administration did raise fuel-efficiency standards, but only for pickups, SUVs, and minivans. And only by 1.5 miles per gallon by 2007.
Frank's father, Zollie, founded Z Frank Chevrolet in 1936. Frank says the dealership has sold over a million Chevys, more than any other single lot in the country. When he was young he worked there as a cashier and parts stocker, but he says he had no particular interest in cars. He did have a love of nature, which he developed on boyhood camping and fishing trips. He wanted an outdoor career, but that seemed impossible for a city kid.
"If I'd have known then what I know now I probably would have gone to law school and become an environmental lawyer," he says. "But that field was just getting started back then, in 1974, so I kind of viewed my options as going into forestry. I don't know anything about agriculture or trees or botany. I just didn't see myself as a forest ranger."
Frank's father persuaded him to go to the University of Chicago and get a business degree. When he graduated, Zollie offered to pay him $18,000 a year, the average starting salary for an MBA, to work at the dealership.
Frank had joined the Sierra Club the year before, after a U. of C. dean who'd gone with him on several canoe trips handed him an application. He started taking a greater interest in the organization's work in 1981, the year his wife, Debbie, developed asthma and President Reagan chose as his interior secretary James Watt, who denounced environmentalists as a "left-wing cult" and promised to "mine more, drill more, cut more timber."
In the early 1990s Frank wrote his will, leaving the Sierra Club a large sum. As a result he was invited to join its national advisory council, a group of big donors. The next year he went to the annual meeting in Washington, D.C.
"I had some real concerns about getting involved in the club, being a car dealer selling Tahoes and Suburbans," he says. "I didn't know if I'd be welcome. I didn't know if I'd be viewed as the enemy. People loved the fact that a large car dealer would be interested."
As a salesman, he knew what turned on car buyers, and he persuaded the group to change the way it promoted fuel-efficient cars. It had been trying to guilt-trip consumers into driving small cars by pointing out the environmental benefits. Now its Web site features articles titled "Clean Energy Policies Would Create 1.4 Million New Jobs" and "High Gas Prices Not a Problem for This Toyota Prius Owner."
"Chuck explained why people find the behemoth vehicle more attractive," says Becker. "Some people see them as better value for their money. We accentuated the money savings and the benefits rather than the societal impacts."
Frank has traveled to Washington numerous times to lobby Congress for an increase in mileage standards. In 2003 he sent a letter to all 100 senators, and it was read on C-SPAN by Dick Durbin, who was sponsoring a rider to an energy bill that would have raised standards on passenger vehicles to 40 mpg. The rider failed.
"Chuck is one of the few people in the industry who will take a stand on this," says Durbin. "I got his letter in the midst of the debate on the fuel-efficiency standard. I was certainly familiar with the Z Frank dealership, and here was the man who was managing this dealership sending me a letter saying we've got to do better, when I was used to getting resistance from that industry."
Durbin--who's fighting not only industry lobbyists, the president, and the vice president, but labor unions--needs all the help he can get. Mileage standards have barely changed since 1984, but he'd like to see them increase regularly as automobile technology improves. He also wants to close the truck loophole that permits light trucks to have a lower miles-per-gallon requirement than cars. The loophole made sense in 1984, when most light trucks were pickups used for hauling heavy loads, but now most light trucks are SUVs or minivans--passenger vehicles. "It's going to take a number of years to do it," he says. "And there appears to be no appetite in Detroit for fuel-efficient vehicles."
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers--a Washington lobby group representing General Motors, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, and six foreign automakers--opposes any increase in mileage standards. And it sees Frank as a heretic on a misbegotten crusade. "He's alone on that," says communications director Eron Shosteck. "The fundamental problem with fuel-efficiency regulations is that they don't take into account market dynamics."
Shosteck points out that even though miles-per-gallon requirements haven't changed since 1984, fuel efficiency has increased dramatically, thanks to better engines and transmissions. Frank says that's true, but the automakers haven't used the gains to build vehicles that get better mileage. They've used them to build bigger vehicles that get the same mileage. "The manufacturers have the technology to improve mileage by 50 percent," he insists. "They'd rather put on an MP3 player. What sells cars is style, power, and goodies."
Pickup trucks, SUVs, and minivans now outsell cars in 46 states. Because they have lower miles-per-gallon requirements, the average fuel economy for all passenger vehicles has actually been decreasing, from 22.1 mpg in 1988 to 20.8 in 2003. That, along with urban sprawl and more multivehicle households, has raised America's foreign oil consumption from 7.8 million barrels a day in 1992 to 12.2 million in 2003, much of which comes from the Middle East.
Frank thinks that's reason enough to change the standards. "Higher mileage will reduce the need for us to be dependent on foreign oil and will have, I think, a real impact on international policy in the United States," he says. "If you don't need to go to the Middle East for oil, we're not putting American culture in the face of people who resent American culture. And number two, their source of funds dries up--they can't buy all the arms and do all the stuff that they do."
He also believes that American auto manufacturers are repeating the mistake they made in the 1970s, when they kept building gas guzzlers while the public was turning to Hondas. The Big Three belatedly started making compacts, but the early models were junk like the Pinto and the Gremlin. Many consumers who defected to Japanese cars never bought another American one.
Today hybrid cars are on the cutting edge of fuel economy, and once again the Japanese are kicking our butts. Honda's been in the market since 2000, Toyota since 2001. Ford only recently introduced the Escape, a hybrid SUV, and GM won't join the market until 2007. By then, Frank worries, Toyota and Honda will be established in the public's mind as the hybrid-car companies.
At a recent meeting in Detroit, Frank says, "I tried to impress upon Chevrolet leadership that it wasn't strictly about economics but about marketing. It's about image. I would love to be able to sell a hybrid car. I drive a Chevy, and I always will. But I'd love to be able to drive a hybrid."
In 2004 Americans bought only 88,000 hybrids--that's 0.5 percent of the U.S. market. By 2008 the figure is expected to increase to 2.4 percent. But Frank compares the hybrid car to the compact disc player. In its early days the CD was the toy of a few audiophiles, yet within a decade it replaced LPs and cassettes. He expects the internal combustion engine to be obsolete within a generation. "They'll still be around in 20 years," he says, "but you won't be buying new ones."
As Frank speaks these words, he's sitting not far from a Chevy Suburban that he's trying to sell for $49,000. His wife drives a small SUV. But he says he's decided not to bring his activism to the showroom floor. He doesn't push the fuel-efficient Aveo on customers. He doesn't tell them the Tahoe SUV contributes big-time to global warming. His left hand collects money for polluting energy hogs, and his right hand writes checks to the Sierra Club and the Illinois Air Quality Campaign, an organization he founded to take polluters to court.
"Do I feel a conflict?" he asks. He pauses. "The fact of the matter is that I make a good living from Chevrolet, and because of that, I can provide financial resources to environmental organizations that I couldn't if I weren't as financially successful as I am," he says. "I belong to probably 30 other environmental or outdoor organizations. Let me put it this way. Somebody's going to sell Chevrolets. It may as well be an environmentalist, somebody who cares and recycles that profit back into environmental causes."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Yvette Marie Dostatni, Lou Russo Photography.