Consumers are demanding more, more, more cars and light trucks from an industry that in many cases is already running flat-out.
March sales were up 12 percent over the year-ago month. Light trucks jumped 14.7 percent, and cars gained 9 percent.
The March total was 1,537,466. The mix was 51.55 percent cars and 48.45 percent trucks.
Ship and rail capacity is already tight in some regions because car-truck sales are so good, and the economy is general is doing so well. Those 'nice-to-have' problems could get worse, even as automakers crank up production.
'There are going to be ripple effects. Strong sales in March will be a further stimulus to the Tier 1 suppliers, Tier 2 and commodity producers, in that order,' said Scott Merlis, auto industry analyst for Wasserstein & Perella Co. in New York.
'1999 is looking like a boom year,' he said. First-quarter sales totaled 3,922,413, an increase of 10.8 percent over last year.
Meanwhile, North American production through April 3 increased only 3.8 percent, to 4,508,855. Light-truck production was up 8.2 percent; car production was off 0.8 percent.
Some March sales highlights:
Ford Motor Co. set a car-truck record for March and an any-month sales record for light trucks. Ford Division sales zoomed 19.3 percent over last year, and Ford Motor announced last week that it will increase second-quarter production by 20,000 trucks and 10,000 cars. Several Ford truck plants are running overtime, which is nothing new. Its Michigan Truck Assembly plant in Wayne, Mich., has been on a three-shift schedule since July 1997. The plant builds the Lincoln Navigator and the hot-selling Ford Expedition. Expedi-tion sales were up 24.2 percent in March.
Each shift at Michigan Truck works only an hour or two of overtime during a week, said Frank Freeburn, a member of the plant's salary coordination group. The plant runs 120 hours a week.
The Ford Louisville, Ky., plant was a rare exception last week. After six months of overtime, it is working only two 40-hour shifts a week while it phases out production of the Ford Ranger.
Louisville continues to make the Mercury Mountaineer and the Ford Explorer, and two other plants will continue to build the Ranger. On April 19, the Louisville plant goes back to a 100-hour week, said George Pipas, Ford sales analysis and reporting manager.
Lincoln and Jaguar sales both fell behind the year-ago month, and both were down year to date.
MERCEDES SPORT-UTE DIVES
DaimlerChrysler AG said it also set sales records for March and for the first quarter. Including Mercedes-Benz, its March sales grew 19.3 percent.
Mercedes sales fell 1.5 percent for the month, even though introduction of an all-new S class hiked sales of that line 49.7 percent. The M-class sport-utilities were off 16.3 percent for March. Sales of the six-cylinder ML320 were down 40.4 percent after three months, and the V-8 ML430 has not made up the difference.
JAPANESE TRUCKS STRONG
Among the Japanese brands, Honda and Toyota light trucks were strong. Truck sales were up 61.3 percent for American Honda Motor Co. in March, mostly because of the 1999 Odyssey minivan.
March sales of light trucks gained 20.6 percent at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Spokesman Mike Michels said last week that in some cases, Toyota is shipping vehicles by truck, instead of by rail, because rail shipping can be hard to find.
Nissan North America Inc. gained 8.1 percent in sales last month. Mazda was one of the few makes with lower sales than in the year-ago month.
GM LOSES 3 POINTS
Chevrolet was another.
General Motors missed out on most of the March increase. GM sales were up 1.6 percent overall, but that represented a 3 point loss in market share, to 29.6 percent of the light-vehicle market.
This year, GM again plans to corral more than 30 percent of the market, said Roy Roberts, GM vice president and group executive of North America vehicle sales, service and marketing. It missed 30 percent last year because of the June-July strike.
Production and distribution bottlenecks held GM back in March, Roberts said.
He blamed low inventories for slow sales of full-sized pickups and claimed that with more inventory, GM could have sold 15,000 more of those trucks in March.
Chevrolet Silverado/CK pickup sales fell 4.6 percent in March. Last year's strikes delayed the change-over to a new model. A broken die for the GMC Sierra early this year was another setback.
Also, 30,000 trucks were in shipping limbo, due to problems with rail cars in Canada, Roberts said. GM has been unable to se- cure enough double-decker transport cars for the big pickups, he said.
AS GOOD AS IT GETS?
As noted, those are nice problems to have, compared to industry sales falling off a cliff, as they did in the early 1990s.
'Just how good do you want it?' asked Van Bussmann, DaimlerChrysler corporate economist.
Bussmann has upped his 1999 sales forecast twice this year, most recently to 15.4 million light vehicles.
That is on the conservative side. The industry sold 15.6 million light vehicles in 1998, the second-best year ever.
General Motors has hiked its 1999 forecast twice in the last month.
The forecast is now 15.2 million to 15.7 million light vehicles, a spokesman said.
In a phone interview last week, Bussmann said, 'Income growth is fabulous; consumer attitudes are about the highest they've ever been; unemployment is about the lowest it's ever been; interest rates are stable; the stock market is booming.
'Nobody six months ago could have predicted we would have all those things, certainly not all at the same time,' he said.
'This is as good as it gets.'
Staff Reporters Michael Woodyard and Aaron Robinson contributed to this report