-- Americans felt too broke to buy new cars and trucks last month, making September the first month with total sales below a million since February 1993.
A drumbeat of bad economic news drove a sales decline for every major automaker as total light-vehicle sales tumbled to 964,873, down 26.6% compared with September 2007, sales tracker Autodata reported Wednesday.
"I'm shocked by what's happened," says Clinton, Iowa, auto dealer John McEleney. Gas prices "have been trumped by the credit crisis" in spooking would-be buyers, he says. His Iowa dealerships sell Toyota, Hyundai, General Motors and Chrysler brands.
General Motors gmsaw sales slide 15.6%. But gas price concerns receded so dramatically that truck-heavy GM's slide was only half as bad as onetime industry darling Toyota, tmoff 32.3%.
The broad-based sales collapse shows "the ridiculous, horrible position the auto industry is in right now is not limited to the domestics," notes Stephanie Brinley, senior analyst at consultant AutoPacific.
Toyota's drop was its worst for a single month in a decade. "We're seeing buyers standing on the sidelines hanging on to their wallets," says Don Esmond, senior vice president for Toyota.
Ford's fGeorge Pipas says showroom traffic dropped so dramatically in the last 10 days of the month as the financial crisis took hold that it was "tantamount to a natural disaster." The industry had one of those, too, to bash sales: Hurricane Ike, which devastated the Texas coast.
General Motors noted that its sales slide was less than many major competitors', allowing it to pick up market share. Sales were helped by a year-end clearance sale.
"I would have jumped out the window with these numbers any other year," GM Vice President Mark LaNeve says. "We're in a crazy, unprecedented market. Relative to the overall market, we performed pretty well."
Still, GM President Fritz Henderson says the stinky sales results show the need for Congress to send the president the financial bailout bill.
"The only way to change consumers' minds is to pass this legislation," he says.
Ford marketing chief Jim Farley says tighter credit is hitting dealers on Main Street, with some customers being denied loans or being asked for higher down payments. Meanwhile, many dealers are being socked with higher costs to finance their inventories and more will go out of business if the financing issues continue, says Paul Melville, a partner in restructuring firm Grant Thornton.