John Simcox, general manager of Clay Chevrolet-Oldsmobile-Buick in Newton, Mass., remembers waiting in line for gasoline during the oil embargo in 1973.
Today's run-up in oil and gasoline prices is not likely to prompt a repeat of that scene, he said.
'This is just a blip,' Simcox said. 'People around here think (oil and gasoline prices) are going to go back down.' Sales of full-sized pickups and sport-utilities at his store are on par with last year, he said.
Simcox shares the view held by many economists and new-vehicle dealers around the country: Short-term increases in gasoline prices are not likely to affect consumer behavior.
'People are not downsizing their purchase decisions as far as we can tell,' said Van Bussmann, corporate economist for DaimlerChrysler in Auburn Hills, Mich.
Prices at the pump would have to remain above $1.50 for six months or longer before consumers begin to turn away from big trucks, Bussmann said. According to the American Automobile Association, unleaded regular gasoline averaged $1.29 per gallon nationwide at the end of January. Last week, prices topped $1.40 in many states.
Oil is selling for close to $30 per barrel, the highest price for crude since the 1991 Persian Gulf war. Bussmann said he expects the price per barrel to remain at $25 or above for the next year to 18 months, 'but not for five years.'
Thirteen months ago, with Asia and Eastern Europe mired in economic recession, oil was flowing freely into the United States and prices per barrel were around $10. Now, with the Asian economy sputtering back to life and the world's leading oil producers limiting production, supplies are tight, driving up prices.
Late last week, Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, two members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, hinted they might boost output, which could stabilize or lower prices.
David Littmann, chief economist at Comerica Inc. in Detroit, says oil is likely to reach $30 to $35 per barrel. He says cost increases in transportation, shipping, manufacturing and gasoline will influence purchase decisions.
'In the second half of the year, I think gasoline prices are headed higher and will impair the consumer wallet and psychology also,' Littmann said.
Despite rising prices, some consumers say they need large vehicles. Cissy Kennedy, an Orange, Calif., mother of five, moved up to a Chevrolet Suburban from a BMW.
'I'm always taking kids to sports or picking them up from school,' Kennedy said. 'It's the station wagon of the '90s and now of the millennium, I guess.'
Kennedy said shopping for the best price can shave up to $4 off each 37-gallon fill-up.
In truck-happy Texas, bigger still is better, and there are no signs of any slowdown, said Alan Helfman, general manager of River Oaks Chrysler-Plymouth-Jeep Co. in Houston.
Texas' truck craze is actually fueled by a run-up in oil prices, Helfman said, noting that the Houston economy is heavily dependent on oil.
'When (oil companies) are making money, everybody's making money in Houston. There's Suburbans and minivans and sport-utilities everywhere,' he said.
If higher oil and fuel prices have any effect on new-vehicle sales, it will be apparent first in equipment selection, said Paul Taylor, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association. Consumers still will buy full-sized pickups and sport-utilities, but they will opt for six-cylinder engines instead of eight-cylinder ones.
Consumers also may choose a slightly smaller vehicle. Scott Germann, of Lake Forest, Calif., drives a Ford Expedition.
'Poor gas mileage did make me not consider a Ford Excursion,' Germann said. 'That's got a V-10, so it just sucks gas.'
Taylor said short-term or one-time events can change consumers' minds. For example, a recent snowstorm across the Southeast drove customers to dealerships looking for four-wheel-drive pickups, he said. A short-term run-up in oil and gasoline prices could have the same effect, he said.
'It moves people off the fence,' he said. 'It reminds people they want to be prepared for the eventuality.'
Special Correspondent Howard DeCruyenaere contributed to this report