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APRIL SALES OK FOR FORD, TOYOTA, BUT CAR INDUSTRY IS WEAK OVERALL

SHARE APRIL SALES OK FOR FORD, TOYOTA, BUT CAR INDUSTRY IS WEAK OVERALL

Ford Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. defied the industry pattern by reporting better sales in April, when competitors suffered slower sales rates compared with a year ago.

But even with the improvement, the automotive industry's overall record is weak this year and suggests Americans are retreating from the buying boom that helped produce record profits for domestic producers in 1994.Ford's car and light truck deliveries were up 3.6 percent from April 1994 on the strength of its 19th consecutive monthly record for trucks. Toyota, the largest foreign-based company, said sales per day were 2.1 percent higher.

Those two reports lifted the industry's U.S. sales for the month to a level 6.1 percent below last year. European manufacturers as a group showed an increase, but they comprise less than 4 percent of the market. Big Three sales were down 6 percent, Asian companies down 9.5 percent.

It was the fourth straight month of auto sales declines and came against a backdrop of other evidence that suggests the U.S. economy is slowing down. On Wednes-day, for example, the government said its main economic forecasting gauge took the biggest drop in two years, partly due to weakening consumer demand. Factory orders also fell for the second straight month.

An economic slowdown doesn't necessarily mean consumers will sharply reduce their purchases of cars and other expensive items. But it does suggest they may be getting more particular about how they spend.

"There are other things people want to do with their money at this point in time," said Art Spinella of CNW Marketing/Research in Bandon, Ore. CNW has tracked consumer "wish lists" for major purchases for more than a decade.

In 1984, new vehicles ranked third on the list of major purchases people planned during the next 12 months, the company's surveys found. This year in January, new vehicles ranked 11th, behind "everything from in-home computers, high-end electronics and home improvements to taking vacations," Spinella said.

Nonetheless, the automakers forecast a healthy 1995 for the industry. Economists at Ford, General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Corp. say they expect vehicle sales to match or surpass 1994 levels.

"Business isn't as good as it should be, given the fundamentals," said Ford analyst Joel Pitcoff.

A number of forces might have been at work in April, including the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah federal building in Oklahoma City.

"Starting the 19th, we saw the retail activity slow down," Pitcoff said. "There were some parallels to the California freeway collapse. ... People get preoccupied with the rescue efforts, the drama of the coverage. What seems to happen is that whenever they get done watching, they're not in the mood to do a lot of things."

Other factors might have exaggerated the sales decline from April 1994 to April 1995.

The month had five weekends last year and none was an Easter weekend. Weekends traditionally are strong selling periods and holiday weekends weak. April this year had five weekends, but one included Easter.