For James Dunn, the lure of a $4,500 rebate from the federal government and a sudden optimism about the U.S. economy overwhelmed his worries about finding another job.

So even though it was the last day at his job as a production controller for a West Columbia, S.C., manufacturer Dunn took his severance check, his 1989 pickup with about 300,000 miles and headed to Dodgeland.

With the help of the rebate and cash from his savings, he bought a red, 2009 Dodge Caliber. "The economy is picking up," he said Friday. "It seems like it is anyway."

Across the country, tens of thousands of Americans were similarly inspired in the past week by the "cash for clunkers" program. Launched officially on July 24, it offers rebates for consumers who turn in old cars — clunkers — for new, more-fuel efficient models.

"I'm watching my 401(k) recover a little bit. I'm feeling like the Dow's going to go over 10,000 and the Nasdaq's going to go over two" thousand, said John Weiskirch, owner of a 1990 Jeep Cherokee with peeling paint that he hoped to trade in. "I'm feeling a little more optimistic that I can get a car and my job's not going to disappear in six months or a year or so."

At a time when the federal government has been spending hundreds of billions of dollars to save the banking industry and prop up General Motors Co. and Chrysler Group LLC, the $1 billion clunker program has turned out to be a rare hit — an initiative that gave consumers the courage to go out and start spending again.

But a lot of dealers haven't been able to process all the deals.

Rick Goble, sales manager at Vernie Jones Ford in Jasper, Ga., spent Friday working through a stack of paperwork on 16 clunkers his dealership has taken in this week. "Now we're trying to punch them all in," he said.

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