At Longo Toyota in El Monte, Calif., general manager Ken Hunt has 250 new Camrys in stock. But Hunt is not concerned about an oversupply problem; at current levels of demand, he said, the Camrys will be cleared out in less than 15 days.
Indeed, like almost every Toyota general manager in the country these days, Hunt wishes he had twice as many Camrys on hand to satisfy demand for what has fast become the nation's No. 1-selling car.
'With every allocation, we've been asking for more product, especially the V-6,' Hunt said. 'If they could build more, we could sell more. I can't remember this happening with any other car - not in this volume.'
Although few took Toyota executives seriously last year when they suggested Camry might be the top-selling car of 1997, no one is snickering now. Through April, Toyota has sold 138,721 Camrys - far ahead of rivals Ford Taurus, at 117,893 units, and Honda Accord, at 104,356.
In fact, over the past four months, the new Camry has sold at an annualized rate of 416,000 units. If attained, that would top the previous-generation Camry's best sales year by 56,000 units, and pass the Ford Taurus' and Honda Accord's best-ever marks by 6,000 units.
And, Toyota will have done it with no incentives and only 15 percent fleet sales - and in a market that is stone cold on cars.
Perhaps most startling are purchase-intention numbers from potential car buyers. More than 8 percent of car buyers - almost Toyota's entire car market share last year - say they have Camry at the top of their shopping list, said Yale Gieszl, executive vice president of Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc.
Dan Gorrell, vice president of Strategic Vision Inc., the San Diego market research firm that pioneered the Things Gone Right quality surveys, said a major chunk of the demand for the new Camry is built into the brand.
'The new Camry shines in traditional hallmark areas of reliability and exterior craftsmanship, and it has picked up gains in quietness, roadability and handling,' he said. But, 'The people who are buying them are Toyota-loyal, and they have a large contingent to draw from. The brand (and the model) has assumed a life of its own.'
Wes Brown, market analyst with Nextrend, a Thousand Oaks, Calif., research firm, said Camry demand also is being driven by perceptions of the car's value.
'Along with Accord, it's the best basic transportation you can get,' he said. 'And if you bring out a new model with more equipment at the same price (as Toyota has done), that adds to the frenzy for the car.'
Faced with this surging demand, Toyota executives in both Japan and the United States are scrambling to find ways to squeeze more Camrys out of already-strained factories in both countries. So far, though, they still lag the demand curve - nationally, Toyota dealers have only 12 days' supply, the same level they had when the new Camry was launched more than six months ago.
Options under study include investing more money in Toyota's Georgetown, Ky., Camry plant to increase capacity, or shifting products around in Japan to free up more Camry exports to North America.
'If 1997 sales continue like the first four months of the year, we're going to face a deficit situation,' said Alex Warren, senior vice president of Toyota Motor Manufacturing Kentucky Inc. 'We might have to make some adjustment to have more Camrys built back in Japan.'
Georgetown will turn out between 320,000 and 330,000 Camrys this year, he said, an increase of 25,000 to 30,000 cars over 1996. That would leave a production shortfall of 80,000 to 100,000 units if the current level of demand is sustained.
The looming shortfall puts uncomfortable pressure on the Japanese parent company, which is running the Camry plant in Japan at nearly full capacity.
In the second half of 1996, the Tsutsumi plant that builds export Camrys shipped 43,044 units to the United States. But that pace slipped in the first quarter of 1997, when only 12,970 were shipped, as Toyota shifted capacity over to meet a demand spike in Japan.
Once that spike is satisfied, Toyota in theory should be able to again raise output of U.S. Camrys. But the decision won't be automatic. The reason: The U.S.-bound Camrys share a line with three of Toyota's best-selling models - Windom/Lexus ES 300; Camry sedan for Japan; and the Camry/Mark II wagon.
And not much more can squeezed out of Georgetown. The plant already is running occasional full Saturdays for overtime production. So far this year it has operated seven double Saturday shifts.
Because of a new model launch and a shuffle in products between the two Georgetown plants, however, more Saturday work will not be possible until later this year.
Warren said Toyota realized last fall that it would be put to the test on Camry demand this year, and the company began preparing for it early.
The Tsutsumi plant freed up some additional Camry capacity by booting one slow-selling model to another factory. And Georgetown began hiring additional workers to accelerate the line speed here.
Over the past 16 months, one of the two Georgetown plants has increased productivity on one of its lines by one-third, representing a gain of as many as 50,000 units a year.
However, much of that gain will now be consumed by a new product: the Sienna minivan. The Sienna will be the wild card for Toyota as it tries to resolve its problem of swelling Camry demand. The company expects strong demand for the Sienna.
But the more Siennas Georgetown builds, the fewer Camrys it can turn out.
Warren noted that Toyota might actually have to reduce Camry production in the coming year to satisfy Sienna sales. At the same time, Georgetown is transferring Avalon production from one line to another.
Avalon sales also could complicate the picture. Georgetown is the sole source of that car. As with the Sienna, the more Avalons Georgetown builds, the fewer Camrys it can supply. So far this year, Avalon sales are up nearly 10 percent over last year, or an increase of about 6,000 units on an annualized basis.
And in Tokyo last week, Toyota Motor Corp. President Hiroshi Okuda disclosed that the company would resume exports of the Avalon to Japan in June, and would begin shipping the car to Australia, moves that will increase the pressure on Georgetown.
Meanwhile, the company is studying its options. Toyota has tweaked tens of thousands of additional units out of Georgetown over the past eight years through kaizen, or the practice of implementing small efficiency improvements along the lines.
But now new plant investments are likely, in such areas as plastics injection molding and engine part machining. The plant will add another 200 workers to its work force of 7,000, and more could follow those.
The tight supplies of the Camry indicate Toyota is reaping the crop it planted last summer, at launch, with an estimated $50 million advertising and promotional budget. Even before a blitz of teaser ads began running last September, Toyota sent direct-mail flyers to 980,000 Toyota owners talking up the new car.
Nearly 5 percent - considered an astounding return for direct mail - asked for follow-up brochures. Of that group, about 15 percent came in for test-drives in exchange for a free oil service.
Toyota also made sure dealers were ready for Camry customers by training 11,000 salespeople in 40 cities prior to the launch, said Don Esmond, who was promoted to Toyota Division vice president of sales after he successfully launched the Camry as series team leader.
But despite this confidence in the product, Toyota took a relatively humble stance with its advertising campaign.
'You can't get up there, beat on your chest and say, 'We got the best damn car in the world,'' Esmond said. 'The customer doesn't want to hear that.'
Hunt, the Longo Toyota general manager, said the new Camry was an instant hit with customers.
'I remember the 1992 Camry took six months to take off. There was a lull with that one. This one took off right away. People are willing to wait a small time to get what they're looking for. It's that good of a product,' Hunt said.
Esmond said that Toyota will refrain from incentives in marketing Camry, even if supply returns to saner levels.
'When the smoke clears at the end of the year, if we can continue to sell at a 12-day supply and we're still No. 1, that would be great. But if we're not No. 1 in December, we're not going to spend obscene dollar amounts to do it. We'll let the consumer decide,' Esmond said.
What does Esmond tell dealers clamoring for more Camrys?
'It's better to be looking for Camrys than looking at them,' he said. 'It's a nice problem to have.'
As for Camry's competitors, Honda is out of the race this year. With a redesigned Accord coming in fall, Honda's Ohio factory will have to slow down for the model changeover.
In fact, Honda is importing 20,000 1997 Accords just to keep up with existing demand and build inventory. But Honda does not want to use imports to engage in a sales race, said Thomas Elliott, executive vice president of American Honda.
'I don't see an opportunity to take the (title) unless we both run out of cars,' Elliott said.
Thus, only Ford Taurus seems to have a shot at beating Camry this year.
But to do that, Ford would have to spend heavily to boost fleet sales, although fleets already account for more than half of Taurus sales. And it is not at all clear if Ford considers the title worth the price of buying it.
Even though Camry seems to have a clear shot at this year's sales crown, Nextrend's Brown predicted the new Accord will take back the title in 1998.
'It is more strongly styled than Camry, and it will have the same sort of introduction, with new and better features at the same price,' he predicted. 'It will take the crown back. All that's holding Accord back is capacity constraints.'
Strategic Vision's Gorrell also believes that Camry's sizzling sales pace will cool in coming months.
'Camry could have achieved even more if they had given it a little more personality on the outside,' he said.
'For that reason, it may not be as hot for as long as they might hope.'