The view from Jack Phelan Dodge: Customers looking at big trucks again, not worried about bankruptcy

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This video visit to Jack Phelan Dodge Suzuki Isuzu in suburban Chicago was my doing, I think. I suggested at a meeting a few weeks back that a car dealer video might be cool, an editor said he’d check into it, and now it has magically appeared on our website. I had this image in my head of videotaping a desperate junior salesman chasing down potential customers on the street, but that probably would have been impossible to arrange on short notice, so instead we’ve got congenital optimist Phelan talking about how things are going. I wouldn’t put too much stock in his economic forecasts (then again, I wouldn’t put too much stock in anybody‘s economic forecasts right now), but two things he said in the video struck me as interesting. (I also really liked the part where a customer says he might want a Ram Hemi pickup “for, like, a Sunday car.”)

One was that customers, now that last summer’s gas-price freakout has begun fading in their memories, are buying big pickup trucks again. The other was that nobody coming into the showroom seemed at all worried about Chrysler’s possible bankruptcy. Now it’s possible that many of the masses who stayed away from the showroom were put off by the bankruptcy threat, but as I’m at least a little bit dubious of the market research on this topic that GM keeps flogging, Phelan’s comment heightened my dubiosity a touch. As for the truck comeback, that reminded me of something Felix Salmon wrote early last month:

Right now, the Big Three — Chrysler and GM especially — will say anything which will get them the money they need to avoid declaring bankruptcy. But their declarations that they’ve suddenly got religion when it comes to small, fuel-efficient cars ring hollow. What’s changed since they last protested that they were incapable of manufacturing such things? Why should we believe that Detroit will ever have any kind of comparitive advantage on that front?

Ironically the Big Three might be better off if they stuck to what they’re good at: gas guzzlers. Why is Ford the healthiest of the three? There’s one big reason: the F series pickup truck. And the brightest of GM’s dim bulbs is Cadillac, a marque which has never been known for its fuel economy.

Detroit knows that it needs to get smaller. If it’s going to downsize, it should stick to what it’s good at, rather than try to compete with Japanese and European manufacturers on turf it conceded to them decades ago.