Domestic auto makers reported a 12.5% decline in late-November car sales Tuesday, extending a slide that began when they introduced more expensive 1990 models a few months ago.
The decline was led by a 24% drop in General Motors Corp. car sales and seemed to reflect consumer reluctance to spend or borrow large amounts of money for a new vehicle. That trend can be worrisome because it often signals a sharp economic downturn.
"There's not a lot of excitement left in the industry," said auto analyst Paul Kleinaitis of Duff & Phelps Inc. in Chicago. "Everybody's got sort of the same cars."
The eight major auto makers reported that they sold cars and light trucks at an average daily rate of 37,059 units during the Nov. 21-30 period this year, compared to a rate of 40,843 a year ago.
Light truck sales were off 3.8%, bringing the decline for cars and light trucks to 9.3%.
GM, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp., which make up more than three-quarters of the North American-produced auto market, reported their combined car and truck sales fell 14% during the period this year compared to last year.
For the month of November, including imported cars and trucks, vehicle sales fell 11.9%, with car sales dropping 13.5% and light truck sales off 8.5%.
Through the first 11 months of this year, domestic and imported car and truck sales were running 4.5% behind last year, with car sales down 5% and light truck sales off 3.2%.
GM said sales of its North American-built cars fell 24%, and light truck sales declined 15.1%.
"Since about the first of October, we've had less traffic," said Frank DeBartolo, general sales manager of Celozzi-Ettleson Chevrolet-Geo in Elmhurst, Ill. "The last quarter has taken quite a bite out of us."
Last summer, auto makers were faced with swollen new-car inventories, and they wooed buyers with big incentive packages. Those incentives, coupled with news of pending price increases for the 1990 models introduced in early October, persuaded some people to buy 1989s instead.
"What we're seeing now, however, is more than 'pay back' for the pull-ahead," said Robert Rewey, Ford's sales vice president. "Some prospective buyers are deferring purchases due to uncertainty about the economic outlook.
"More than anything else, that uncertainty is fueled by high interest rates," he said.
Others were more optimistic. DeBartolo said he expected the 1990 sales slump to end in a month or two.
"As far as the economy goes, everything is stable," he said. "There's nothing drastic that's going to happen."
Nov. 21-30 % 1989 change GM 78,358 -24.0 Ford 46,958 - 8.7 Chrysler 22,652 -15.7 Honda U.S. 15,626 + 6.7 Mazda U.S. 1,608 +25.1 Mitsubishi U.S. 1,333 * Nissan U.S. 4,626 +42.6 Toyota U.S. 9,577 +63.7 TOTAL 180,738 -12.5
There were 8 selling days in the selling period this year and last year.
* No comparison possible.