updated 3/31/2009 5:44:03 PM ET 2009-03-31T21:44:03

Opening Day came early for employees Tuesday at Jack Kain’s Ford, Lincoln, Mercury dealership, when Ford Motor Co. announced a new program that would help buyers in the event of a job loss.

“When I read it to our sales people, you would have thought we just knocked a home run,” said Jack Kain, a dealer in Versailles, Ky. “We’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”

Weighed down by the lowest sales levels in 27 years and consumer confidence at historic lows, Ford and General Motors Corp. announced two programs that would cover buyers’ monthly car payments in the event they lose their jobs. All automakers report sales figures for March on Wednesday, which are expected to be just as dismal as February, when companies sold about 688,909 cars.

“It really attacks one of the key challenges in the market right now, and that’s confidence in the consumer’s ability to make their car payment,” said Tim Longnecker, automotive industry executive for Acxiom Automotive, a marketing consulting firm. “I think they’re good programs and I think they will spur demand.”

The announcements come a day after President Barack Obama said the government will back new car warranties issued by GM and Chrysler LLC, who have accepted federal assistance and are seeking more, to help boost consumer confidence about buying their vehicles.

Ford has not requested federal bailout funds. The company also said it would offer zero percent financing on its vehicles and partner with its dealers to introduce a program that would help local charities affected by the economic downturn.

Under Ford’s plan, customers that purchase a new car or truck between Tuesday and June 1 and subsequently lose their job through no fault of their own, will have Ford make their monthly payments for up to one year. The maximum monthly payment Ford will make is $700 — customers would have to make up the difference for payments exceeding that amount. That amount would cover the monthly payment of a $30,000 to $40,000 vehicle depending on interest rates, down payment and trade in value.

The company is offering the plan through a third-party underwriter.

“It’s having the ability to give customers peace of mind and protection at a time when they need it most,” said John Felice, general marketing manager for Ford, Lincoln, Mercury. “It comes at a good time. We’ve had a lot of momentum in the marketplace the last few months.”

GM’s program is similar, but comes with different terms. The company will make customer payments, up to $500, for nine months in the event of job loss. GM officials said that program would be offered to consumers purchasing cars in April.

“We’re still in the business of making cars and trucks,” said GM Chief Executive Officer Fritz Henderson during a press conference Monday. “It’s bold and unprecedented.”

The moves come a couple of months after South Korean automaker Hyundai Motor Co. launched a program that allows buyers to return a vehicle within a year if they can’t make the payments due to a job loss or disability. Hyundai expanded the plan in February, making payments for customers for up to three months should they get laid off.

Although virtually no one has taken Hyundai up on its Assurance Plus program, it has served as a successful marketing tool to raise people’s awareness of Hyundai, said spokesman Jim Trainor. There are no official figures of anyone returning their car or needing the automaker to make their payments.

“You have to own the car for two months before you’re eligible,” Trainor said. “It’s still kind of early.”

Chrysler, which has 30 days to restructure and reach a deal with Italian automaker Fiat SpA, said that it doesn’t have a protection or assurance program right now, and has yet to announce any kind of special discounts or savings for April.

“In working with our dealers, we have determined that they want to stay with employee pricing,” said Chrysler spokeswoman Carrie McElwee.

Kain, who also serves on the board of directors for the National Automobile Dealers Association, said that with the announcement of the Ford plan, his staffers began calling potential customers Tuesday that were previously on the fence about making a purchase.

“It’s already sold several cars today,” he said.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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