This seemed an appropriate place to examine the current and future prospects of Ford Motor Co., the nation's second-largest automotive manufacturer. For Ford and its chief rival, General Motors Corp., America's biggest car company, the bear has been raging.
Domestic sales and market share have been shredded for both companies, with May sales falling 11 percent for Ford and 5 percent for GM. That marks 12 straight months of lower U.S. sales for Ford and the fourth consecutive monthly decline for GM, according to industry reports.
By comparison, Asian car companies doing business in America have been bullish, even romping over territory once thought sacrosanct by their U.S. competitors, the segment occupied by big pickup trucks and sport-utility vehicles. Three examples of the Asians' success: Toyota Motor Corp.'s U.S. sales were up 7.8 percent in May; Nissan Motor Co. was up 15.5 percent; and South Korea's "Seoul brothers," Hyundai Motor Co. and Kia Motors Corp., were up a combined total of 9 percent.
American car companies, including the Chrysler Group, which is now a division of German-owned DaimlerChrysler AG, currently hold 57.5 percent of their home market, according to a Reuters estimate. Asian car manufacturers have a 36.4 percent share, with the Japanese alone controlling 32.1 percent of U.S. sales.
Because the competition against the Americans is likely to grow more intense, resulting in more sales declines and loss of market share for the Red, White and Blue League, Wall Street -- which has no permanent friends, enemies or national loyalties -- has turned nasty. Junk-bond ratings have been thrown at Ford and GM, forcing both companies to scrounge for loans at higher borrowing rates.
It is against that backdrop that Ford decided to come over the weekend to this retreat in Rockland County, about a 70-minute drive from New York City on a good day. The idea was to show that Ford still has what it takes to win back market share -- strong, competitive, appealing products.
Ford's "All-Brand Drive and Review," as the event was called, was intended to show something else -- that Ford is a global company of many parts, including Sweden's Volvo Cars and Britain's Aston Martin, Jaguar and Land Rover; and Japan's Mazda Motor Co., as well as the company's traditional, home-grown Ford, Lincoln and Mercury divisions.
It was an impressive show. But it also was one that, ironically, displayed product weaknesses that helped to explain Ford's current sales predicament. Take the matter of pickup trucks, which still account for most of the automotive sales dollars going into the company's coffers.
There was, for example, the 2006 Lincoln Mark LT 4x4, a splendiferous version of Ford's still strong-selling F150 pickup truck. The Mark LT has everything you ever wanted in a pickup truck, including a 5.4-liter, 300-horsepower V8 engine. It also has many things many of us never asked for, including finely stitched leather seating; a rear roof-mounted DVD player and super-duper sound system -- and a base price of $39,995.
In an era of cheap gasoline, guaranteed job security and plentiful personal income, the Mark LT would be one heck of a fine and fancy truck. But gasoline is now expensive, which cools the passion for a vehicle that gets 14 miles per gallon in the city and 18 mpg on the highway. Job security, for many people, has all of the value of a junk-bond rating; and spending nearly $40,000 on a Mark LT pickup that can be bought less expensively as a structurally and technically equal Ford F150 just might not be all that appealing to people who are worried about the location and size of their next paycheck.
Thus, it was not surprising to me that many of the journalists on hand to test Ford's latest wares generally left the Mark LT and the other Ford pickups parked. Journalists understand markets, too. If their readers, listeners and viewers are moving away from pickups, journalists tend to move with them. No one keeps an audience by ignoring the audience's demands.
In fairness, Ford's marketers see the Mark LT as a "niche vehicle," a relatively low-volume super-truck for people who are crazy about pickups. Also, when you look at all of the company's corporate offerings, you can see some pretty strong light at the end of the tunnel, mostly emanating from Mazda, Volvo and those people in the Ford division who have decided at long last to start treating cars with the same respect the company has for trucks.
Mazda has a growing list of attractive, fuel-efficient, fun-to-drive cars, including the Mazda3 hatchback (which Mazda's marketers prefer to call the "five-door"), the Mazda6 Sport Wagon (a k a compact station wagon); and the Mazda RX-8 four-seat sports car.
Volvo still lays claim to the world's top automotive safety title; and Ford shows every intention of exploiting that by bringing Volvo's safety systems, such as rollover resistance technology for SUVs, into the rest of Ford's line. And Ford's executives need to continue giving strong support to what is now happening in the company's Ford Motor division, where automotive designers and engineers finally are beginning to turn out highly competitive, mainstream family sedans, such as the Ford Five Hundred.
It is going to take more than those products, of course, to get the company off of Bear Mountain and back onto the plains where it can run full speed with the bulls. The United Auto Workers union is going to have to help; and so will the federal government, eventually, in the matter of doing something real to curtail ever-rising personal and corporate medical costs.
But it can be done. Anyone doubting that should review the collective histories of Toyota, Honda, Hyundai and Kia. There was a time when those now-agile predators weren't even considered worthwhile prey.