The $5 Miracle

Lakeshore promises cars for the masses, as long as they're willing to pay.

Customers with no other choice are Lakeshore's bread and butter. - Walter  Novak
Customers with no other choice are Lakeshore's bread and butter.
Standing before rows of gleaming steel and plastic in a Shaker Heights car lot, Danny McNabb is ready with the sell before his newest customer even steps out of her car. With hair slicked back above a blazer imported from Atlantic City circa 1985, he smiles wide and guides her inside to the mysterious land where, according to the Saturday paper, they're "Selling Cars Like Candy Bars!"

For just $5 down, Lakeshore Buick-Pontiac promises to sell you the "new Buick-Pontiac of your dreams."

With fluorescent lights, cafeteria linoleum, and rows of wooden desks and upholstered chairs that could've been swiped from a 1977 garage sale, it doesn't quite look like a den of miracles. But sales manager Rick Gum offers a beefy handshake and friendly tales of the magic that occurs within these very walls.

"We help a lot of people that normally don't get helped," explains Gum, whose disgruntled mustache and bowling-alley belly make him look like a bouncer rolled into a sweater.

There was the lady with breast cancer, whose credit went bad after she had surgery. All those single moms, working two or three jobs, making $8 an hour. They arrive at Lakeshore with $5 in their purses -- and drive away in affordable machines.

Granted, the cars don't really cost less than a six-pack. "You either pay up front or you're gonna pay monthly payments," Gum admits. "There is no magic wand."

But at least they can buy something. "Most of these people wouldn't get the time of day at a normal dealership," he says. At Lakeshore, they can find a "good, reliable vehicle" that is "new or like new."

Duly impressed, a reporter returns a few days later and asks to meet these legions of the blessed. Can we hear their stories?

Suddenly, Gum clams up. Says he has to ask his manager. He takes long, loping strides to the other side of the dealership. But the boss, Jim Flask, doesn't want his customers talking. "Privacy reasons," he says.

There may be others.

The Shaker Heights lot is the newest satellite of Lakeshore Chevrolet in Euclid, which is swiftly earning a reputation as a less than forthright Samaritan. Over the past three years, 34 people have complained about the company to the Ohio Attorney General's office, with 32 more complaints arriving at the Better Business Bureau. Meanwhile, Lakeshore has become a household name for auto-fraud lawyers. It recently settled two lawsuits in Cuyahoga County and is facing three more.

In an industry renowned for scams, the home of the $5 car is carving out a special distinction.

"Most car dealers are very straightforward," says Sandy Prebil of the BBB. "This company consistently has creative advertising that, in our opinion, is often over the edge." And if the mounting complaints are to be believed, Lakeshore also has a history of misleading customers and selling damaged cars.

In the spring of 2004, a coupon arrived in the mail offering Karci and Andy Lightner a rebate on a used car. When they got to Lakeshore, the dealer said the discount didn't apply to customers with trade-ins. Undaunted, the Lightners bought a $35,000 Chevy TrailBlazer. They didn't realize that the dealer jacked up the price to pay off the loan on their trade-in. None of this was spelled out in their paperwork, the Lightners claim. They sued, accusing Lakeshore of "fraud and deceit." Though the dealer denied everything, it settled for an undisclosed amount.

When Natajlia Smith bought a Chevy Malibu in 2005, the salesmen told her it was "just like new" and had "never been in an accident," she asserts. But after taking it to a body shop, she discovered that it had been in a wreck. In court documents, Lakeshore says it had no idea.

David and Lisa Flachbart were also told their $22,300 Sebring had never been in a crash. But when they took it to a Chrysler dealership for repairs, they learned otherwise. Their warranty was worthless. Lakeshore denies everything, and the Flachbarts' case, like Smith's, is now in court.

For a dealership selling hundreds of cars a month, one could argue that a handful of lawsuits is par for the course. More worrisome is when the single moms they're supposed to be helping start to complain.

Last January, Delores Gatson went to Lakeshore after hearing the radio ads. A finance officer told her she needed someone to co-sign for her TrailBlazer. Her aunt signed the papers. What neither realized was that the aunt was actually buying the car. Gatson's name somehow disappeared from the paperwork.

When she asked to nullify the deal, Lakeshore told her the aunt's credit would be ruined and Gatson would lose her $1,500 down payment. She gave up. "We had no choice," Gatson says. "I'm a single mother with three kids. I can't afford just a little $1,500."

Dawn Evans of Willoughby wrote to the attorney general's office in December, complaining that Lakeshore wouldn't switch a title to her name. After a month without plates, she was worried. "My credit is not very good, and therefore I was forced to deal with a company that isn't known for integrity and honesty," she wrote. "I am very frustrated with the way they have done business since walking into their door, but I felt I had no other options."

Yet customers with no other choice are Lakeshore's bread and butter. Maybe that's why Danny McNabb is so intent on selling a car to a Scene reporter, even after he knows she's writing a story. Following her outside in the gathering dusk, he notices her beat-up Honda and pounces.

"You're due for a new vehicle," he purrs, handing her a card in hopes she will return."My integrity is foremost," he assures her.

Then he returns to his post in the shadows, watching as she drives away.