Motor market changes gear

It might seem churlish of the major car manufacturers to grumble – in the face of record UK car sales and a final solution to the chronic registration issue. But things are not as rosy as they appear.

Although we have yet to digest the bumper August sales figures, a pattern seems to be emerging. For the majors, it is downwards and rather alarming. In the calendar year to the end of July, Ford slipped more than two points to about 18 per cent of the market, compared with the same period last year; General Motors had shed one point and Rover nearly one point over the same period, to arrive at 13.5 and just under 10 per cent of the market respectively. In motor industry terms, these are heavy reverses. And they reflect an actual decline in car sales, as well as a percentage one.

Panic would be rather an emotive term to use, but there are definite signs of discomfort at Brentwood and Luton. This week, it emerged that Vauxhall is planning an image campaign to reinforce its marque – apparently because it fears recent restructuring has put too much emphasis on the individuality of models such as the Corsa, Vectra and Astra. This is, to say the least, an interesting revelation in the light of continuing industry speculation about GM jettisoning Vauxhall in favour of the Opel marque, which holds sway in the rest of Europe.

Just as significant is the defection of Ford’s top brand manager to Toyota. While such things are not unheard of, they are highly unusual. And why Toyota? Herein lies part of the major manufacturers’ problem. Toyota is making serious inroads into their heartland: the fleet market. And there are reasonable indications it will be successful. The Toyota Motor Company has taken a majority stake in the UK concession – important in itself – and will shortly be bankrolling heavily increased marketing spend. This change in emphasis is being accompanied by a streamlining of its model range, with new Starlet, Corolla and Carina product expected to make its debut by 2000.

Toyota is far from being the sole preoccupation of the car majors, however. Changes in the nature of the market must be giving them cause for concern. The fleet market, as we know it, may be only one Budget away from irreversible change. And where private buyers are concerned, all manufacturers must be concerned about the impact of Daewoo’s ‘direct’ sales operation on the market, and the implications this has for their own creaking dealership systems.

News, page 6; Analysis, page 16

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