General Motors and Ford have lost some combined momentum these days, as the most impressive relative sales results in the middling automotive recovery now are being turned in by their Japanese rivals and by Chrysler. So once again as in the past, Ford and GM are hoping that their biggest-profit vehicles, full-size pickup trucks, can rally to the companies' aid.
There certainly are some good harbingers for that hope. For one thing, there finally are signs of a recovery in U.S. new-home construction, which is the single biggest factor in encouraging the purchase of new pick-ups.
For July, GM reported 6-percent lower overall sales than a year earlier, thanks in part to fewer cars sales to fleets but also reflecting a 13-percent decline for the month in sales of its dominant pickup-truck line, Chevy Silverado, and a 12-percent drop in sales for its GMC Sierra line. The results set off some alarm in GM observers in part because GM has continued to boost dealer inventories of pickup trucks in advance of a big design change next year, which will idle pickup-truck production for a while.
Meanwhile, Ford's sales overall were off by 4 percent for July. And sales of its F-Series pickups — America's best-selling vehicle line for decades — were flat in July, though they're up by about 12 percent for the year.
Only Chrysler, which seems to be selling everything it can make of every brand and description, saw a significant uptick in pickup sales in July, as Ram sold 17 percent more for the month and 23 percent more for the year.
Car sales moderated for Detroit's Big Three as Toyota, Honda and Nissan added to their very recent momentum selling cars, making up huge chunks of what they lost last year.
"But I wouldn't draw any conclusion from July [pickup-truck sales], and it hasn't made any significant difference to our inventories or our strategy," Alan Batey, GM's head of U.S. sales operations — and its interim CMO in the wake of Joel Ewanick's abrupt exit this week — told automotive reporters on a conference call. "We're not seeing this as a warning signal at this point in time."
For one thing, Batey said, rising industry-wide optimism over signs of stirring in the housing market for now are overcoming concerns that have arisen in some quarters about weaker sales in a U.S. agricultural belt that is being hit hard by drought.
And there's no underestimating how the changes of seasons can tee up truck sales for fall. "Traditionally," Batey said, "from this time on, pickup sales increase."