Car Sales Continue To Climb

October 29, 1994|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,Sun Staff Writer

Maryland's long-running new-car sales boom seems to be losing some of its pep, but 1994 is still shaping up to be auto dealers' best year since the pre-recession late 1980s.

According to figures compiled by the Motor Vehicle Administration, new-car sales rose 3.4 percent last month, compared with the previous September. While that kept intact a 16-month string of higher sales, it's a far more modest pace than the double-digit gains of the spring and early summer. Sales growth has slowed every month since April.

Auto dealers aren't complaining, but nor are they expecting a return to the free-spending days of the late 1980s.

"We're doing better," said Eric Swanson, new car sales manager at Ernie Swanson Oldsmobile on Crain Highway in Glen Burnie, "but I wouldn't go so far as to say the good old days are back."

During the first nine months of the year, new-vehicle sales -- including trucks -- were up 14.8 percent. So far this year, dealers have sold 27 percent more cars than in the same period of 1993.

"In the good old days, we used to sell 200 cars a month," Mr. Swanson said. "That was in 1986, '87 and '88. Now we're selling 60 cars a month. But this is great. In the past few years we were selling only 40 to 50 cars a month."

Benno Hurwitz, owner of Fox Automotive Inc., which operates eight domestic and foreign dealerships in the Baltimore area and Laurel, agrees that times are good, but he says that much of the buying is out of necessity, not enthusiasm.

"I think people are buying new cars because they have to have a new car, not because they want to," said Mr. Hurwitz. "The average age of the car on the street today is eight years. It used to be three.

"Impulse buying is not there now," he said. "Cars cost too much. Today, a car payment can be more than your mortgage."

Greg Manner, a federal government employee from Severna Park, is typical of wary car shoppers.

Eyeing a $20,000 Jeep Cherokee on the lot of Ritchie Nissan, Jeep, Eagle in Glen Burnie, yesterday afternoon, he said, "That's too much, and it's not the expensive one. . . . I'll keep driving my old Ford pickup."

But plenty of Marylanders are taking the plunge. According to MVA title registration figures, which reflect dealer sales, 31,010 new vehicles were sold last month, compared with 29,982 in September 1993. During the first nine months of the year, sales totaled 264,513, up from 230,474 in the same period last year.

The average price of a new vehicle was $18,396 last month, up $1,249 from the previous September.

The sales numbers are encouraging, said Michael Conte, director of regional economic studies at the University of Baltimore. "They show that we are in the middle of a consumer-led recovery that is stimulating the sale of big-ticket items."

Mr. Conte said that consumers seem to be "getting back to their normal spending patterns" and those that have postponed buying a car for a long time are getting back into the market.

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