A furious summer of selling cooled down ever so slightly in September, even as the industry marched toward a record year.
Sales of new cars and light trucks reached 1,401,833 in September, up more than 9.3 percent from September 1998.
In the first nine months of this year, retailers sold 12,918,834 new vehicles - almost 1.2 million more than in the first nine months of 1988.
September light-truck sales rose 14.9 percent from last year to account for 48.7 percent of the industry's total sales volume. That's slightly ahead of their 47.9 percent share for the year.
September closed out the 1999 model year at an all-time record of 16,777,754. That was 9.2 percent ahead of the 1998 model year, and it surpassed the industry's previous high-water mark of 15,797,323 in the 1986 model year.
But even as September's volume ran ahead of 1998's, the widely predicted market softening may have begun. Nine of the industry's biggest sellers were down from September 1998. The industry's top-selling brand, Ford, lost 2.3 points of market share in September as its car and truck sales declined by about 7,000 units.
NO TEARS IN THE BEER
And the dramatic increases in General Motors sales in recent months - making up for last year's UAW strikes - appear to be flattening out. Only three of GM's eight brands - Chevrolet, GMC and Saab - posted sales gains in September.
'There was a little deceleration,' noted David Garrity, industry analyst with Dresdner Kleinwort Benson North America LLC in New York.
'But I don't think anybody's going to be crying in their beer over it.'
Garrity blamed the letup on the shift from 1999 models with heavy incentives to 2000 models with less-attractive deals.
Summer incentives on such big-volume products as the Chevrolet Silverado pickup and DaimlerChrysler's minivans were partly responsible for the summer sales spike, he said.
Still, the sales year rumbled along in what future retailers are certain to recall as the good old days.
For the first nine months of this year, 15 makes posted sales increases in excess of 20 percent. Six of them - Hyundai, Kia, Jaguar, Audi, Saab and Volkswagen - chalked up gains of more than 40 percent.
Only four of the 37 makes listed individually by Automotive News sold fewer new vehicles this year than last. They were Plymouth, Mazda, Saturn and Lincoln. Mazda was down only 3,394 sales; Saturn, just 1,356.
A SLIGHT COOL-DOWN
'We've got a hot product right now,' said Ernie Chesser, manager of Neil Huffman Volkswagen in Louisville, Ky.
'Everything in the line is hot. Our only problem is that there's not enough of it available.'
George Pipas, sales analysis manager for Ford Motor Co., interpreted the September cooling - particularly Ford's - as merely a come-down from an unusually torrid pace in June, July and August.
'At that time, the industry was selling at a pace to reach close to 18 million sales,' Pipas said. 'In September, we settled back into the range of 17 million.'
But the previous month's anxieties appeared to melt away in September. Rising gasoline prices, which some thought might punch a hole in truck sales, did nothing, as usual.
And the Federal Reserve's recent tinkering with interest rates seems to have left consumers unfazed. Indeed, Middle America's breadbasket brand, Chevrolet, turned in an 18.5 percent gain for the month.
WHY FORD SLIPPED
Ford blamed its September sales decline on two factors: shrunken supplies of Ranger pickups and an intentional reduction in car shipments to daily rental fleets.
Ford curtailed Ranger production at its Louisville assembly plant in April in order to tool up for two new Explorer variations. That meant that Ford dealers had 5,000 to 20,000 fewer Rangers on hand as they began selling their 2000-badged models.
The second issue - reduced fleet sales - knocked more than 8,000 car sales out of Ford's monthly tally, according to Pipas. Ford is trying to bolster the resale value of its cars by limiting the number that move in and out of rental fleets. But the strategy has a statistical cost. The company expects to take a similar hit in October.
Meanwhile, the top three Japanese brands all scored substantial sales gains in September.
Nissan reported an 18.5 percent increase over September 1998. The U.S.-built Xterra is a major player in the rebound. The Xterra is now outselling Nissan's more established Pathfinder sport-utility, but with little evidence of cannibalizing Pathfinder sales. Despite a dip in September, Pathfinder sales are ahead of 1998 for the year to date.
Toyota Division and Honda Division also were ahead of their full-year pace in September. Toyota rose 10.3 percent, and Honda was up 11.8 percent. For nine months, Toyota was up 8.9 percent; Honda, 7.5 percent.