"Cash for Clunkers" display at dealershipPhoto: billadayThe “Cash for Clunkers” program has been so successful that it will have to be wrapped up earlier than expected, the Obama administration announced on Thursday. Folks looking to turn in their fuel-hogging old cars will need to get their deals finalized by this Monday, Aug. 24, at 8 p.m. EST in order to cash in.

The program was supposed to run through Labor Day, as it received a $2 billion extension earlier this month after exhausting its initial allocation. But the Department of Transportation said on Thursday that overwhelming demand has forced the program to end early to ensure that there are enough funds to make good on already-promised rebates.

While the program’s green credentials are at best dubious, it’s obviously been popular. An Obama administration official speaking to reporters on background called the program an “overwhelming, overnight success,” arguing that it has been good for car buyers, who get more efficient vehicles, as well as for automakers and car dealers.

So far, the program has received more than 457,000 applications for rebates of $3,500 or $4,500, valued altogether at $1.9 billion. A total of $3 billion was allotted for the scheme.

“This program has been a lifeline to the automobile industry, jump-starting a major sector of the economy and putting people back to work,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a statement. “At the same time, we’ve been able to take old, polluting cars off the road and help consumers purchase fuel-efficient vehicles.”

One of the challenges thus far, according to the administration, has been making sure that applications for rebates are complete. They estimate that only 40 percent of applications have been processed, largely due to inadequate or missing information. While they encouraged dealers to submit complete applications by Monday’s deadline, they said there will be opportunities to rectify flawed applications.

The official called Cash for Clunkers “one of the most successful stimulus programs in the history of our country,” but said the administration had not considered seeking another extension of the program.

Sens. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), and Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) have introduced legislation that would make a clunkers-like program permanent, rewarding citizens who buy fuel-efficient vehicles with a tax break.