BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — The sparkling oceanfront that runs from San Francisco to San Diego is heavily Democratic — filled with people who love their Toyotas, Hondas and BMWs.
By contrast, California's dusty agricultural inland valleys are politically and religiously conservative; their driveways are filled with Detroit iron.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Bakersfield, which sits at the southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley. In this rapidly growing city, the big employers in town are farms and oil fields, rather than high-tech and big pharma. Pickup trucks rule, especially if they have a bow tie or blue oval.
"There are two Californias," says Dan Hay, general manager of Jim Burke Ford-Lincoln-Mercury in Bakersfield. "It's a blue-collar town. It's not a Silicon Valley."
Just ask a dealer in Silicon Valley — which, despite its name, is at the heel of San Francisco Bay.
"We have this phenomenon out here of haves and have-nots," says Adam Simms, general manager of Toyota Sunnyvale. "But if you go to the Central Valley, you find it to be more like the rest of the United States."
In the Bakersfield area, General Motors, Chrysler and Ford hold nearly half the market. That's not bad, considering that less than two hours' drive away in Los Angeles, Toyota sells as many vehicles as all the domestic brands combined.
This city of 271,000 is growing rapidly, but it is still small enough that dealers, many of whom have been in business for decades, have exclusive franchises. For example, if you want to buy a Ford in town, your choices are Jim Burke Ford on Oak Street or Jim Burke Ford in the Auto Mall.
"The folks at GM frequently refer to this market as an island for California," says John Pitre of Motor City Auto Center in Bakersfield, which sells Buick, Pontiac, GMC, Saturn and Lexus. Pitre is the dealership's executive general manager — the "head coach," as he puts it.
Pitre is the nation's third-largest GMC dealer, with annual new-vehicle sales of 2,200 to 2,500 units. He says such sales would be unlikely elsewhere in California.
"We're definitely a Sierra truck market," Pitre says.
In Bakersfield, the Chevy Silverado reigns supreme. According to vehicle registration data from R.L. Polk & Co., the Silverado far outpaces other trucks in that market. More than half of the Chevrolets sold in Bakersfield through September were Silverados.
The Detroit 3's product mix of heavy-duty, three-quarter-ton and one-ton trucks — and their generous menu of powertrains and other options — gives them an edge, Pitre says. GM's Duramax diesel engine, he says, "really has kept us as the truck leader in this market."
Through the end of September, Toyota had sold 580 half-ton Tundras in Bakersfield, according to Polk. That is well below Silverado's 1,633 units and Sierra's 787.
Toyota plans to build a heavy-duty, diesel-powered Tundra. Pitre says a diesel would help Toyota, but not enough to lure away loyal domestic pickup owners.
Says Pitre: "Tundra is selling OK. But based on our pro-domestic environment in Bakersfield, it will be a long time before you see Toyota selling at the same level with Tundra as Chevy, GMC and Dodge."