A Rush to Cash in on "Cash for Clunkers"

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cash for clunkers generic
CBS

The countdown is on for the end of "Cash for Clunkers." The popular program is set to end at 8 tomorrow night.

As of Friday, dealers had sold almost half a million vehicles under the plan - bringing in more than $2 billion dollars in rebates. And that figure is expected to grow after a wild weekend for car dealers, as CBS News correspondent Tony Guida reports.

Bells are ringing at a Honda dealer in New York, each bell signaling another car sold.

"I've never seen the showroom - in the 27 years I've been here - this busy," said Brian Benstock, general manager of the dealership, Paragon Honda.

The story is the same all over. At a Toyota dealer in Maryland, salesmen are hip-deep in clunker deals. And the back lot of Christian Gomes's Ford store on Long Island it's the clunkers themselves that run 60 deep.

Gomes said he sold his entire inventory.

The government's Cash for Clunkers program invigorated comatose car showrooms. The biggest winners were Toyota, raking up 19 percent of all the sales, followed by GM with 18 percent, Ford with 15 percent, and Honda with 13 percent.

Richard and Stephanie Miller didn't plan on dumping their clunker. But their 16-year-old Ford Explorer was wheezing after 153,000 miles.

"She gave us a lot of good years, but she's had it," Stephanie Miller said.

So the millers went shopping today. An hour and a half later, awarded with $3,500 in clunker cash from the government and a $1,500 rebate from ford, they were they owners of a bright red 2010 Ford Fusion.

"I voted against Obama but the man has a lot of imagination," Richard Miller said. Stephanie Miller added that she was excited about the gas mileage of the new car.

At a Toyota dealership in Silver Spring, Md., Charles Kerner put his 14-year-old Windstar out of its misery to get a new Corolla for his daughter. Kerner's motivation was simple: "The $4,500 cash back."

Like many government programs, Cash for Clunkers has been a nightmare of red tape. Dealers also complain that Washington is snail-like coming across with the cash. Just 4 in 10 deals have been reimbursed so far.

"We have about $5.5 million out there," said Tammy Darvish, vice president of Darcars automotive group. "I'm sure the government will make good on it sooner or later. But not knowing when and how long that money will be hanging out there - it's just not a very comfortable way."

The cash for clunkers program has cost taxpayers $3 billion.

"The government has done just about as much as can be done for the automobile industry since they came around for help last Novmber," said University of Maryland economist Peter Morici. "Now we have to get the economy going and they have to restructure - and sink or swim."

Cash for clunkers has been catnip for what used to be called Detroit's Big Three automakers. But if they are to flourish going forward, they will have to find some magic on their own. The Department of Transportation confirms Cash for Clunkers will end Monday night.

  • Ken Millstone
    Ken Millstone

    Ken Millstone is an assignment editor at CBSNews.com