Something to think about: Will the Detroit 3 ever become primarily carmakers again?
They have been mainly truckmakers since 1996. They are gradually switching back to the car side and -- boy oh boy -- is it ever tough.
But they're working on it, and the fruits of their labors will be in General Motors and Ford showrooms within the year. At GM, the Buick LaCrosse and Chevrolet Malibu are on sale, and the Chevrolet Cruze will arrive in 2010. Likewise, the Chevy Volt. At first, the Volt will be a $40,000 toy. I wonder how many people will pay that much for a car to drive to the supermarket or take the kids to school.
Ford's Fusion is strong, and the company is high on the new Taurus. Ford is preparing a new Focus, and the Fiesta is also on the way.
Chrysler? Don't ask. Nothing in the pipeline for a couple of years. Will there even be a Chrysler Group in a couple of years?
Cars are where it's at in today's new-vehicle market. Pickup trucks have returned to their traditional role as beasts of burden. The SUV fad has more or less ended, and minivans have never recovered from their rejection by soccer moms.
Sales of crossovers are holding up pretty well although there are too many varieties of them (55 nameplates, no less, with more on the way). They are the station wagons of the 21st century.
Trucks, trucks, trucks
So cars are the avenue for growth today. But before you can grow with cars, you have to have cars. And the Detroit 3 don't yet have them -- or at least not enough of them.
It all goes back to the beginning of the truck boom. That was the 1984 model year, when Chrysler Corp. introduced its minivans. Slowly but surely, trucks crept up the sales ladder.
Trucks had only 26 percent of Big 3 sales in 1982. Their share grew to 39 percent in 1990 and to 58 percent in 2000. And that wasn't the peak. Trucks captured 64 percent of Detroit 3 sales in 2007.
The reason was obvious: There's a lot more profit in trucks than there is in cars. Another reason -- just as important but not so obvious: The Detroiters had darn few cars that the public wanted to buy.
I know. I've been preaching that sermon for so long that you may be tired of hearing it, but it's true. The Detroiters ignored cars for a decade and a half. I warned that that neglect would come back and bite them where it hurts. Look at the sales numbers. I rest my case.
The Japanese way
While you're at it, take a peek at Toyota Motor Sales, American Honda Motor Co. and Nissan North America. The Japanese giants also went big on trucks, but they didn't ignore cars. New Camrys, Accords and Altimas continued to stream from Japanese plants, and customers continued to stream into their U.S. showrooms.
It's open to debate, but I maintain that neither GM nor Chrysler would have declared bankruptcy if they had had the proper cars to sell.
In 1985, the Detroit 3 had 73 percent of the new-car market in the United States. That slipped to 53 percent in 2000 and to 35 percent in 2008. In the first half of this year, the Detroit 3 had 31 percent of the car market.
Looking at it from another angle, Ford Motor sold 78 cars per dealership in the first half of 2009. GM sold 71; and Chrysler, only 46. That's hardly enough to keep the wolf from the door.
Those performances don't compare very well with first-half sales of 279 cars per dealership for Toyota Motor Sales, 227 per dealership for American Honda and 185 per dealership for Nissan North America.
Of all the misfortunes that have befallen the Detroit 3 in the past few years. I am convinced that abandoning the car market was the most costly.
And they have no one to blame but themselves.