You're absolutely right. That was Ricardo Montalban you just saw on the ol' telly, and he did say "Coreeentheean leather." The silken-voiced one is back trying to move some iron for Chrysler Corp. Even the boss, the ultimate pitchman, Lee Iacocca, has taken to the airwaves again. This is a harrowing time for the car biz, and the sales types in Motown are arming themselves for the great struggle of '88, when selling new automobiles may be about as easy as running a disco in downtown Tehran.
Yet Detroit is still propelled by raw hope. This year's models are always better than last year's, the thinking goes. The new fender lines, the fancier upholstery, the flashy graphics in the ad campaign, the very newness of it all will save them yet. A new dash of color on the old Blivet-8, coupled with some catchy slogans and a few celebs like Ricardo, and -- suddenly -- happy days are here again. And the Dodgers will be back in Brooklyn.
Some of the guys in Detroit feel safe enough to stick with the same stuff. Ford, which is rapidly becoming the New York Yankees of the car biz, will retain its winning "Have you driven a Ford lately?" slogan. Based on the success of its high-quality product line, one guesses that it could use H. Rap Brown's "burn, baby, burn" and still move cars. Slogans don't sell automobiles unless the product is right in the first place.
Take Chevrolet, for example. The ad business has been swamping Chevy's agency, Campbell-Ewald, with awards for its catchy "Heartbeat of America" campaign, but the sound and the fury have had little effect on sales. Chevrolet, in the first 10 months of the year, sold 192,492 fewer vehicles than during the comparable period in 1986 (1,382,568 versus 1,190,076) and lost market share and image to Ford. Chevrolet dealers are sitting on a glut of once-popular machines like the Corvette. Inventories of the zoomy sports car have swelled to a 155-day supply, roughly three times what is considered healthy for a low-volume exotic. Worse yet, the leadoff hitter in the Chevy lineup, the Celebrity, is off nearly 80,000 units from its 1986 pace (318,128 versus 240,829).
This is not to imply that only domestics are having troubles. Sales have dropped for such imported icons as Mazda, Toyota, BMW, Audi, Volvo, Subaru and Porsche during 1987. That has ad agencies for the imports scratching around in search of more James Garners, Joe Isuzus and Joanne Woodwards to sing the praises of various makes.
What's it all mean to you? A buyer's market is coming. Consider that industry analysts now expect 1988 car sales will be down to between 9.5 million and 9.8 million units from roughly 10 million this year (excluding light trucks). And consider that prices are expected to increase from 4 percent to 8 percent on domestic and imported models: The average price for an automobile sold in the United States will come very close to $14,000 -- double that of 1978 and up nearly $3,000 from price tags of three years ago. Consider that cars are lasting longer thanks to better rust protection, longer lived, lower maintenance engines and drive trains, and more durable tires. Automobiles now can be driven more than 100,000 miles with only modest repairs if the oil is changed frequently. Consider the number of stunned customers, faced with sticker shock, who may opt to drive the old bus another year.
Until the Black Monday market crash, a lot of industry execs were banking on upscale buyers to support the market. Practically every manufacturer this side of Yugo and Hyundai is entering the so-called "luxury sport" market heretofore occupied by the West Germans, Swedes and English. Here come the Japanese with their Honda Acuras and Toyota Lexuses.
Bob Sinclair, the canny president of Saab's American operation, recently told me that no fewer than 85 different car models are now priced between $14,000 and $30,000. Considering the shaky state of the economy as we head for 1988, this middle ground of the market could end up looking like Gettysburg on the day after.
An automotive bloodbath could be in the offing, especially if the young, affluent buyers of pricey autos are as overextended as many financial gurus suspect. What is the upshot? In a few brief words, you are in fat city if you're serious about buying a car soon. Dealers will be overstocked and desperate. Your used car should be worth more because "pre-owned" (I love that euphemism) machines increase in value during a slumping economy.
And if a slump turns into a real recession, even the prices on hot sellers like Hondas, Hyundais and Acuras will suddenly become negotiable. No one will be spared. Not all the hoopla and advertising hype -- not to mention low- ball loans and supersales -- will save the day. Already, dealers I know are muttering about a slowdown. "The buyers fall into two groups," says one. "The first are scared about the economy and are pulling back, squirreling their nuts for the long winter. The others are waiting for the glut, figuring that the dealers and the manufacturers -- the whole crazy system, for that matter -- will overextend themselves and be forced to give away cars."
Already, Iacocca leads the pack in announcing long-term layoffs and cutbacks for Chrysler. He is just the first of many industry leaders who will be forced to bite the bullet in the months to come. The party is over, and everyone who figured it was going to be an endless gala of giddy, turbo-charged, flat-out prosperity is in for hard times. Not even Ricardo and his legendary leather seats can save it this time. ::