Sales figures through the first half of 1996 gave a clear picture of where trucks were heading. The American Automobile Manufacturers Association (AAMA) reported that factory sales of Class One trucks, the lightest units with gross-vehicle-weight (GVW) ratings of 6,000 lb or less, were being made at an annual rate of 3,982,844 in the first half of 1996. (A GVW rating is the safe weight limit of truck chassis, body and maximum payload combined.) That's an expansion of more than half a million over the 3,405,064 Class One trucks moved in 1995.
You can see why writers who focused on light-duty models were reporting that the trees were growing up to heaven in that field in the first half of this year. Carrying this thinking a step further, some started forecasting that light-truck sales in the U.S. would soon equal passenger-car sales; however, the wind has gone out of the sails of that prediction. It seems that the Baby Boomers who have purchased many of the growing volume of new light trucks are now aging to the point where they are reducing purchases of light trucks.
There was no sales boom for Class Eight trucks, the most brawny models, in the first half of this year. AAMA said producers were selling Class Eights, with GVW ratings above 33,000 lb, at an annual rate of only 174,972 units in the first half. That's well below the 180,778 Class Eights sold in all of 1995.
This year's truck troubles were not limited to a slowdown in sales of heavy-duty models, and there were other factors, beyond soaring sales of light-duty units, that constituted good news for the truck field in 1996.
The U.S. Bureau of Census, which keeps tabs on such matters, reported that the nation's trailer makers shipped 112,316 complete trailers in the first half of 1996, down 23% from shipments in the comparable period of 1995, the year in which the producers reached a record high in shipments. All is obviously not well among trailer manufacturers. Fruehauf has said such key assets as its network of factory-owned branches is up for sale in an effort to raise cash. Meanwhile, Monon Trailer has had to issue a strong statement to the effect that the company was not planning to close during a dispute with its union over concessions.
About the same time, there were a number of difficulties at truck factories. Mack said it was reducing its work force by more than 5% in anticipation of a long-term industry-wide downturn in sales of heavy-duty trucks.
At Navistar International, plans for the next-generation truck program were discontinued because the company and the union could not reach an agreement on critical issues.
This year's Middle Eastern Crisis, the squabble between Iraq and its Kurds, which snarled delivery of Iraqi oil to the world's supply got the blame for an early fall surge in fuel prices here, adding to the 1996 time of troubles in the truck field.
As common carriers of truck freight scurried to meet this problem nationwide by adding surcharges to their rates, California truckers were grappling with another headache. Clean diesel, a fuel with reduced sulfur content, was offered there to meet the area's celebrated emissions standards. Truckers protested after their tests showed that the fuel is not so clean after all.
Recent favorable news on the truck scene was led by reports of a strong demand for trucking services and indications that the federal government will continue to supply generous support for road work.
Governmental regulation of trucks, a frequent source of trouble in the past, looks like it will be a positive force in the year ahead. Electronically controlled anti-lock brakes (ABS), a source of trouble when they were first required in 1975, were drawing generally favorable reaction through 1996, just weeks before they were scheduled to be required again on big trucks. Thanks to a redesign job and extensive testing, the brake systems seem to strike regulators and many operators as safe and ready for the road.
Four pairs of suppliers-Rockwell WABCO, Midland Grau, Bendix Knorr and Eaton Bosch-appear set to cater to a billion-dollar market. There were further positive straws in the wind. While ABS brakes will not be required on vehicles until early 1997, a growing number of truck operators have been ordering them on their new vehicles, apparently convinced of their safety value. The electronic link between ABS brakes in tractors and the trailers they pull was one operator concern, which could be on the road to a solution. After truckers expressed doubts about these links, a committee from several industry suppliers was set up to look for the solution. When the linkage was unveiled, one industry observer who has seen many a brake product introduced commented, "it looks like it will work."
One final observation on events of 1996; the Federal Reserve Board agonized through much of 1996 on how it should regulate interest rates. The truck business wasn't much help. A slowdown in the commercial truck and trailer market, often considered a good business barometer, indicated that interest rates should be cut to revive business. But run-away sales of light-duty trucks indicated that interest rates should be raised to ward off inflation.
Kelley is a truck writer based in Dearborn, Mich. You may write him in care of the editor.