About this time last year, Mack Trucks Inc. dealer Ben Bruckner Jr. was expecting a slowdown in the heavy-truck market. So was almost everyone else.
But halfway into 1997, truck plants are operating close to capacity, suppliers are straining to keep up, and dealers are waiting as long as six months to get customer orders filled.
'We did not order enough trucks for what's developed this year,' Bruckner said. 'We're finding ourselves really scrambling for product.'
Bruckner Truck Sales Inc., based in Amarillo, Texas, with additional sales and service locations in Lubbock, Fort Worth and Oklahoma City, sold about 425 commercial trucks last year. When the market heats up, Bruckner can often find what a customer wants through other dealers. But not now.
'We're shopping everybody's inventory and everybody's pretty much in the same boat,' Bruckner said.
After hitting a record 201,000 units in 1995, Class 8 sales cooled off to 170,000 units last year. With an eye on cyclical patterns, forecasters were looking for a flat 1997 or a slightly down year.
Through the first six months of the year, Class 8 heavy truck sales totaled 84,000 units, down 5 percent from the first six months of 1996. But Mack recently boosted production of Class 8 trucks from 117 to 130 a day, said Paul Vikner, executive vice president of sales and marketing. The truckmaker's forecast for U.S. Class 8 sales in 1997 has been bumped up from 160,000 to 177,000 units. If Canada and export markets are added, Class 8 sales could reach 208,000 this year.
'We're sold out of product for the year,' Vikner said.
Paccar Inc., makers of heavy-duty Kenworth and Peterbilt trucks, is showing stronger than anticipated sales and a growing backlog of orders. It, too, is operating near capacity for Class 8 vehicles.
Navistar International Transportation Corp. recently boosted its 1997 Class 8 forecast to 190,000 units, the second upward revision this year. Indicators tied to truck sales, such as industrial production and retail sales, remain strong, said David Johanneson, group vice president of the truck business.
Although Class 8 sales were off 8.5 percent in June, truckmakers, suppliers and dealers say orders for new vehicles are increasing.
In late spring and early summer, Navistar was having trouble with suppliers falling behind delivery schedules. Although 'spot issues' remain, the situation has eased, Johanneson said.
At Mack, Vikner said some suppliers were having trouble keeping up, although truck production has not been affected.
'We're starting to see some strain in the system,' he said.
Rockwell Automotive, looking at market forecasts and customer production schedules, expected the market to ease off this year. When it didn't, Rockwell tried to speed up deliveries of materials and components in its own supply chain. But it could not get the supply moving fast enough, Rockwell President Larry Yost said.
Rockwell's customer orders for April, May and June were 50 percent higher than they were for December, January and February, he said.
'It caught many of us unprepared,' Yost said. 'And for a period of about six weeks we were causing our customers some problems because we couldn't deliver fast enough.'
For Bruckner, the Amarillo-based Mack dealer, the market presents some risks. If he orders new trucks and the economy dives before the vehicles are delivered, some of his customers are likely to renege. But if he does not order new Mack trucks and the economy remains stable, his customers will no doubt shop elsewhere.
Said Bruckner: 'I'm holding my breath, honestly, and hoping that by the first of the year sales will be about where they are now.'