U.S. Car Sales In 2009: Worst in 27 Years

Bertel Schmitt
by Bertel Schmitt

2009 sales of light vehicles (cars and light trucks) in the United States came in at the bottom end of the estimates. Americans bought only 10.4m units, the lowest level in 27 years, Reuters reports.

America actually lost some 4 million cars. The United States scrapped 14m autos while buying only slightly over 10m last year. Cars on the road dropped to 246m from a record high of 250m in 2008, says a report to be released on Wednesday by the Earth Policy Institute (EPI), cited by Reuters.

Lester Brown, the president of the EPI, fetes this blip as the United States entering “a new era, evolving from a car-dominated transport system to one that is much more diversified.”

Not so fast. The U.S.A. still has some 800 cars per thousand pop, vastly more than the rest of the world. Car density in Western Europe hovers in the 500s. There are approximately 50m more cars than licensed drivers in the U.S.

The quickly aborted cash for clunkers program removed only 700,000 vehicles from American roads. By government decree, they were immediately replaced with new ones.

Update: Complete set of 2009 data here in handy Excel format Refer to TTAC’s roundup of 2009 sales data for a continuously updated roundup of 2009 sales data from around the world.

Bertel Schmitt
Bertel Schmitt

Bertel Schmitt comes back to journalism after taking a 35 year break in advertising and marketing. He ran and owned advertising agencies in Duesseldorf, Germany, and New York City. Volkswagen A.G. was Bertel's most important corporate account. Schmitt's advertising and marketing career touched many corners of the industry with a special focus on automotive products and services. Since 2004, he lives in Japan and China with his wife <a href="http://www.tomokoandbertel.com"> Tomoko </a>. Bertel Schmitt is a founding board member of the <a href="http://www.offshoresuperseries.com"> Offshore Super Series </a>, an American offshore powerboat racing organization. He is co-owner of the racing team Typhoon.

More by Bertel Schmitt

Join the conversation
7 of 31 comments
  • Mark MacInnis Mark MacInnis on Jan 06, 2010

    What we are seeing, which hasn't been mentioned yet, is the impact of the end of the "EZ lease" on new car sales/production. During the heyday of easy leasing (early 90's to 2007) the OEM's could pretty much bank on 3 to 4 million sales a year coming from lease renewals. The returned cars were artificially pumped into the used car market, totally skewing the economics of car ownership for a long time. Since leasers "bought" on monthly payment, and the OEM's and their related finance arms manipulated the residual values, the OEM's could continue to jack up price and justify high-content and just pour it into the showrooms. Boom! But now, leasing has withered, and we are back to selling cars the old fashioned way, the way perhaps we should have been all along. Save up enough for a 20% down payment. Establish a credit history and get bank financing. Buy a car that will fit your lifestyle, not just now, but for the 6 years it will take you to pay for it. This leads to more conservative buying decisions, more thoughtful decisions. Smaller cars with fewer options, since we are now paying for the whole car now, not just 30% of it. People just won't go out on a whim and sign for a convertible or SUV because they gotta have it.....knowing that if it doesn't fit their lifestyle, or if their circumstances change, "it's only a three year commitment." The car commitment is, and will be, longer-term now for most of us. In short, cars appear to be assuming a more utilitarian and purposeful, less bling-and-lifestyle-statement, role in peoples lives these days. Good for consumers. Bad for the OEM's, who will have to radically change their business models to deal with the new cultural reality of car ownership. The party of the 90's and Oughts is over. Time to grow up. Responsibility and austerity are the new profligacy. I'd like to see a graph of new car sales per million US drivers over the years. I'd bet it would show a sizable "bubble" during the leasing heyday, and that currently we are at a lower-than-average rate. The 'recovery' (my nominee for most over-used word this year) will be gradual. We won't see 16 million new car sales again until the driving population at historical purchase demographic rates supports that many sales. Maybe not ever, as the big driving boomers start to downsize to one-car families or stop driving altogether..... So, for the OEM's it'll continue to be the cut-throat game of musical chairs.....make a profit and service your debt from a smaller volume, go out of business, or merge. Surprisingly, I think Ford won't survive (despite the "right" things they are currently doing market and productwise).....unless they follow GM and Chrysler to the bankruptcy court and the government dole to eliminate their debt service. Chrysler won't survive either. GM will be the last domestic standing.....(I'm 180 degrees from my thinking last year on this one.)

    • See 1 previous
    • Mark MacInnis Mark MacInnis on Jan 06, 2010

      Thanks JohnHorner.....you may be right, on third thought, about Ford. I hadn't considered fully the product thing they've got going on. But they need to avoid more missteps like the misbegotten uglification of the Flex done by Lincoln....if they can keep or increase their current market share, and get and keep the UAW in line, they may survive. But if we have a double-dip recession, all bets are off....

  • Andy D Andy D on Jan 06, 2010

    If you are worried about losing your job, would you buy a new car? Or any non-essential purchase? That is what happened in '09

  • Craigefa Craigefa on Jan 06, 2010

    Saying car sales will never make it back to the 16 million mark is overly pessimistic. There was no legitimate reason at the time for so many cars to be sold; the economy was simply humming and people had excess cash. Those times will come around again. The early 80s seemed pretty bleak and we came out of it. The early 90s was a jobs wasteland and that flipped in the late 90s. There were a lot of people who said they were forever changed by 9/11 that ended up part of the mid-decade boom. Things change.

    • Mtymsi Mtymsi on Jan 06, 2010

      I completely agree with you. The current numbers are a result of our perpetually cyclical economy and the current recession was particularly harsh. I believe eventually both the economy and historic auto sales levels will return in several more years. I don't at all foresee the current numbers becoming the new normal rate. There are too many negative factors involved in the current sales rate none of which will be permanent to base future annual sales rates on the current rate.

  • Bertel Schmitt Bertel Schmitt on Jan 06, 2010

    Have a look at this chart.