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Rise in pickup truck sales a good sign for economy

| Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, 12:01 a.m.

WATERLOO, Ill. — He had been eyeing the truck for weeks, ever since he dropped by the dealership for a free car wash and drove right past that black beauty. That truck got in his mind. Jon Rullkoetter couldn't shake it.

The truck was sharp. Tuxedo black. Bumpers painted to match. Darkened tail lamps. The Ford F-150 Fx4 Supercrew, stickered at $53,900, sat preening just outside the showroom doors. He couldn't miss it. And that was by design.

“I call it getting the juices flowing,” Sunset Ford salesman Brett Bergman said with a smile.

But Rullkoetter was a salesman, too — he sold locomotive parts — and he recognized the game at hand.

So he carefully weighed the cost, what his payments might be, what his wife would say, how his job was going. Maybe he could wait. Or find a better deal. He really didn't need a new truck, especially one that cost as much as a BMW and got 19 mpg.

But he was feeling better about his job. Locomotive parts seemed to be moving again.

Now he was back in the showroom. He sat in a manager's office. The door was closed. Bergman, hopeful, stood just outside.

“I could feel this was coming,” Bergman said.

Buying a pickup is affirmation that times are good — or at least getting better. Few buyers really need a hulking truck, a vehicle that has evolved to become a modern mix of basic utility and luxury handbag — plenty of torque and towing power, plus heated seats and premium speakers. If would-be truck owners are downshifting into cheaper cars, that's not a good sign for the economy.

So pickup sales are a closely watched barometer, a sign of where the country is headed, especially when coming out of a recession. Constructions workers buy pickups. But so do insurance agents, salespeople and factory workers, among the half of all F-150 pickup buyers who use their trucks mostly as personal vehicles.

“Trucks outselling cars is an important short-term indicator, for the next year or so,” said Haig Stoddard, an analyst at WardsAuto, which covers the auto industry.

And this year, light trucks have had an edge over cars.

The F-150 leads the way. It remains the most popular vehicle in the nation, having outsold every other car or truck model every year since 1981. That's an astonishing run. And the F-150 is not some downmarket ride. The average price is $39,000.

Just as analysts look to pickups to gain economic insight, Ford, too, keeps tabs on certain sectors to predict sales. The automaker tracks the number of oil and gas wells. It tallies tractor-trailer sales. The automaker has found housing starts, which have slowly risen since crashing in 2009, are strongly connected to pickup sales.

When the housing market crashed in 2008, “that was really reflected in our business,” said Doug Scott, Ford truck group's marketing manager.

Even before the housing bubble burst, auto analysts were talking about the possibility of a fundamental shift away from gas-guzzling trucks because of high prices at the pump. Then the recession hit, and their fears were multiplied. Auto showrooms, such as Sunset's sleek glass and steel building erected on converted farmland 25 miles south of St. Louis, became deal-making dead zones. American pickup sales dropped 56 percent in four years, to 1.1 million in 2009.

That's when Bergman, now 30, was just starting out. He had sold cars before, working at his dad's dealership in North Dakota. But he felt lost in Waterloo's deserted showroom. Longtime managers tried to reassure him that the Sunset dealership, started in 1912, had survived the Great Depression — surely it could ride out the Great Recession. Bergman, in turn, used that line on the few people who ventured in the door.

Bergman made it through, and so did the nation's auto industry. Pickup sales rebounded to 2 million last year. Bergman sold 256 vehicles himself. He has been Sunset's top salesman for four years running.

Ford helped sustain its pickup sales with several moves. It improved fuel economy with the debut of the high-tech Ecoboost V6 engine in the 2011 model year.

And, in 2009, Ford rolled out a new entry-level F-150. Scott, the marketing manager, pushed for creation of the STX line, a spartan truck intended for craftsmen who won't fret the lack of chrome flourishes. The truck starts at $26,300.

“It's 100 percent a tool for doing a job,” Scott said. “Nothing flashy.”

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