DaimlerChrysler AG has warned its United States dealers that it can’t build enough 2001 Chrysler PT Cruisers to meet all the orders customers have placed. According to Associated Press, an undetermined number of people who have ordered one of the retro-styled hatchbacks – some of whom paid hundreds of dollars as a deposit – might have to wait until the middle of next year to get one and pay next year’s prices.

The automaker’s inability to keep up with demand for PT Cruisers could damage relations with buyers Chrysler was hoping would be repeat customers in years to come. It also could mar what has been its one unqualified success in a year of troubles.

DaimlerChrysler warned dealers of the shortfall in a memo sent earlier this month, saying it would tell dealers by Dec. 1 how many 2001 PT Cruisers they would get by the end of summer 2001 “to assist with managing customer expectations.” The memo said customers whose orders are not built before then would be charged whatever price the 2002 model carries.

The PT Cruiser factory in Toluca, Mexico, will build about 120,000 PT Cruisers this model year, with 20,000 slated for export to foreign markets. In August, DaimlerChrysler said it already had 100,000 orders.

DaimlerChrysler also has ordered hundreds of U.S. executives leasing PT Cruisers under a corporate plan to give them up for sale to dealers as slightly used ‘program cars’ and barred executives from leasing new PT Cruisers.

DaimlerChrysler spokesman Dominick Infante said he could not estimate how many customers with orders might not get a PT Cruiser, or how many orders the company has in its system now.

“We realise there are more people who want PTs than we can build”

“There’s a limit to what we can build, and that’s the issue we’re facing,” Infante said. “We realise there are more people who want PTs than we can build.”

To help meet demand, the company is ramping up production at its Jeep plant in Austria – which will also build right-hand drive models for Britain and Australia – and trying to increase output at Toluca. A Chrysler UK spokeswoman said PT Cruiser supplies are currently keeping pace with local dealer orders.

Infante said it would be up to U.S. dealers to explain that orders are not filled on a first-come, first-served basis. DaimlerChrysler allots PT Cruisers based mainly on a dealership’s past record of Chrysler sales – a common auto industry practice. Dealers who sell more Chryslers and sell their allotments faster get more vehicles.

Some customers have complained that the system seemed arbitrary.

“It has been difficult knowing there are tens of thousands of people driving their car for several months knowing they ordered several months after I did,” said Pat Corkery, a stockbroker in Anchorage, Alaska, who ordered a PT in February and is set to receive one in January. ” There’s no logical explanation for an allocation system that delivers cars to some people in 10 weeks and some in 10 months.”

The PT Cruiser was intended to lure a new class of buyers to Chrysler, especially younger owners or import buyers who had not considered buying a Chrysler in the past. It has provided a welcome bit of good news for the Chrysler unit, which has suffered in a fiercely competitive market. The unit posted a loss of $512 million in the third quarter, and reports have emerged that the head of the Chrysler division will be ousted this Friday (November 17).

But the model’s popularity appeared to catch DaimlerChrysler completely off guard. Buyers have formed owners’ clubs and spawned a small industry in add-ons. Some customers follow their order through the company’s computer system, into the build schedule and even track the rail cars and truck transports that carry PT Cruisers from the factory to their dealership.

But the backlog in orders has tempered the enthusiasm of some would-be customers.

James Vernon, an aircraft mechanic from Indianapolis, ordered his PT Cruiser on March 7. Judy Goering, a planner for a utility company in Nebraska City, Neb., ordered her PT Cruiser on April 4. Neither has been told when their cars will be built.

Vernon put down a $US500 deposit to hold his order, and said being told it wouldn’t be delivered until next year – and at a different price – would make him rethink the deal.

“I’ll never buy a DaimlerChrysler product again”

“I would probably tell them I would like my deposit back, and I would go to another manufacturer,” he said. “To me, that’s inexcusable.”

Goering was told she would get a PT Cruiser in June or July, but the deadline has slipped every month since then. If Goering can’t get a 2001 model, “I might cancel my order, and I’ll never buy a DaimlerChrysler product again,” she said.

Dealers say the PT Cruiser is still selling well, but hope customers will forgive the hassle of getting one. Alan Helfman, general manager of River Oaks Chrysler-Plymouth Jeep in Houston said he had about 300 orders for PT Cruisers, and knew several other dealers with long waiting lists.

Helfman said telling customers that their PT Cruisers wouldn’t arrive until the middle of next year might cause a few cancellations, but not a flood.

“I’m hoping a lot of people will stay with me, because if worse comes to worst they’ll get a 2002 [model],” he said. As for having a car that sells itself, he adds, “Every squirrel deserves to have an acorn once in a while.”