While others in the big truck business have expressed doubts about sales results this year, Hebe observed, "We see no reason to be pessimistic. Sales may not go through the roof this year, but we are counting on a good year with the sales total looking good when compared to the historical record."
One of Freightliner's innovations, announced in late 1996, is expected to deliver solid support to the used truck sales efforts. The plan involves setting up wholesale and retail SelecTruck centers, often in partnership with dealers, to enhance used truck sales and support activity .
As with most recent moves, the used truck plan has already delivered up-to-date information on exactly what is going on in that segment of the market. "We have already determined that there is a segmented market out there for used heavy trucks," Hebe elaborated. "The premium, big truck with plenty of power and good specifications is moving, and some specialized vocational models do well; however, the buyers are a picky lot. They don't go for anything that fails to measure up, particularly if the power is low."
The company's used truck plan is too new for its success to be measured; however, according to Hebe's report, earlier innovations have done well. One of these is Freightliner's entrance into the fire truck business, with the company's acquisition of the assets of the inactive American La France line. New models have been developed and will begin shipping from a new factory in North Carolina through this year. The move was a natural for Hebe. He got his start in the truck business at American La France.
Before moving on to other new programs, here are reports on recent moves in the company's traditional field, starting with an all-new line of the company's bread-and-butter over-the-road, heavy-duty trucks for the 21st century.
Largely of a new design, and replacing nothing in the Freightliner lineup, the Century models, which were billed as "the first all-new Class 8 truck platform in decades," took more than a year to be fully introduced. They caught on first with owner-operators, Hebe reported, but are now ready to enter the fleet market.
This year should be a big one for sales of the new models, Hebe said, adding that it looks as if they will be selling in some quantity to steady customers of some competitors.
The producer modestly said the Century models were designed "to push the envelope in styling, fuel and weight efficiency, electronics, ergonomics, diagnostics, driver and highway safety, reliability, low maintenance and integral corporate and dealer support." The new models represent the reappraisal or redesign of some 11,000 components, according to Hebe, who added, "Virtually nothing is the same."
Century trucks will offer a new model diesel engine designed jointly by Freightliner, Detroit Diesel and Mercedes-Benz of Germany. The 12-liter Series 55 powerplant is an in-line, four-cycle, six-cylinder model. It is turbocharged and air-to-air charge cooled.
"We think the light weight of this 300- to 365-hp engine will do well in such vocational units as ready-mix concrete trucks," said Hebe.
One of the novel products recently added by Freightliner was the company's first gasoline engine. "Commercial demand is limited largely to the one-way rental field," Hebe said; however, "we have used our experience with gas power to prepare for trucks using alternative fuel."
Just before Hebe talked with this publication, the federal government announced an order for Freightliner delivery trucks that are powered with compressed natural gas engines for the postal service. "Alternative-fueled trucks just don't have the range of diesels, but the postal service might make them work," Hebe observed, "If we are serious about clean-air efforts, we will simply have to find a way to make alternative fuels work conveniently."
In another development affecting the company's future, Ford Motor Co. announced that it is selling its heavy truck business to Freightliner. Ford said it wanted to concentrate its truck efforts on light- and medium-duty models that sell in volume. Already a sales leader in heavy-duty trucks, Freightliner said it saw strategic value in adding a second complementary line of heavies. However, it may take the rest of 1997 to work out the details of the complex deal.
Kelley is a truck writer based in Dearborn, Mich. You may write him in care of the editor.