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100 + 10: Trucks Outstrip Auto Sales

America Trucks On

What’s the most popular light-duty vehicle in history? No, it isn’t the Model T, the Toyota Camry or the VW Beetle; it is the Ford F-Series truck. Since its introduction in 1948, Ford has sold some 28.4 million of them, building 290,000 the very first year. In 2004, sales topped 900,000 for the completely remodeled F-Series.

Yes, Americans have long loved their trucks for their practicality and utility. Before discount clubs and big box stores, they were already a fixture on the American vehi-scape. Now add minivans and SUVs to the model mix and provide numerous options and trim levels up to the level of the very best passenger cars. What happens then? Simple, in 1990, U.S. retail sales of trucks exceeded automobiles for the first time. An interesting evolution of consumers tastes to say the least.

 The Ford F-150, the truck that seemed to have started it all.
The seeds of truck dominance were sown in the mid 1970s when Corporate Average Fuel Economy standards were first put on the books. The onslaught of downsizing that began with a vengeance in 1977 came at considerable cost in comfort and model identity.

Many consumers convulsed at the sameness of models that mainly differed by nameplate. The attractiveness of the full-size family sedan from Detroit automakers was badly hurt and the full-size station wagon was completely compromised. Muscle cars became muscle trucks. Consumers scrambled to redefine their needs and the marketplace stumbled in fits and starts to match up product with needs.

The aftermarket answered with conversion vans and these crude handling, mini-RVs were becoming OE options when the minivans burst upon the scene in 1983 as a 1984 model. The bombshell came from Chrysler with the T115 front-wheel-drive minivan program, better know as the Plymouth Voyager, Dodge Caravan and later the Chrysler Town & Country. Chrysler sold over 200,000 minivans the first year.

Interestingly, it was Chrysler that fired the first salvo since it was the market leader in fullsize van sales, and growing in popularity manifested as conversion vans. On the other side, Chrysler was a complete loser in the station wagon space where the minivan would complete squarely. For Chrysler, that meant a great upside for conquest sales.

GM & Ford followed in 1985 with the Astro/Safari and Aerostar minivans. Where the Chrysler minivan was based on the K-car platform and front-wheel drive, the GM and Ford minivans were truck based and rear-wheel drive. Though these were also successful, it was a more bittersweet business model since they were just selling the consumer a minivan instead of a station wagon. But the marketplace loves competition and this soccer mom nation embraced the minivan. In the period from 1980 to 1985, sales of light trucks, minivans and SUVs doubled from 2.2 million to 4.4 million. Market share for trucks climbed from 20 to 29 percent, although passenger cars still held a solid 71 percent.

At the same time in 1984, the SUV market was getting more interesting with AMC Jeep launching the Cherokee and Isuzu the Trooper and as these “sport wagons” gained in popularity the terminology changed to SUV.

But then the Cherokee started running into larger, better appointed SUVs like the Ford Explorer in 1991. Now part of Chrysler, Jeep countered with the Grand Cherokee in 1993. The floodgates opened and countless such models proliferated from all major builders. Virtually every automotive nameplate suddenly needed an SUV in the showroom, from Mercury to Cadillac, from Mercedes to Porsche.

Many consumers just preferred the SUV image and fun over the minivan and increasingly didn’t even explore wagons. The Buick division of GM dropped the Roadmaster station wagon in 1996, the same year Toyota began marketing the RAV4 in North America. As domestic-based auto manufacturers threw more resources into trucks and SUVs, foreign- based domestic manufacturers took away more and more market share on the passenger car side. Only in this latest decade have the transplants turned serious attention to minivans and trucks. Competitive products are now available across the complete range. New plants are going in place. The battle royal rages on!

U.S. Truck Sales Trump Autos
U.S. Retail Sales 1980 1985 1990 1995 1999 2000 2003
Total Vehicles 11.196 15.423 13.859 14.717 16.978 16.537 16.639
Light Trucks/SUVs 2.215 4.446 4.459 6.081 8.182 8.491 9.025
Passenger Cars 8.981 10.977 9.300 8.636 8.696 8.046 7.614
% Cars 80 71 6759 52 49 46
% Trucks 20 29 33 41 48 51 54
Source: U.S. Department of Commerce

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