Detroit U.S. auto sales dropped to their lowest level in more than 17 years last month as consumers frightened by Wall Street turmoil stayed away from showrooms, prompting some auto company executives to predict dire consequences if the market doesn't improve.
By the time all automakers reported their numbers Monday, sales had dropped 32 percent to just over 838,156 vehicles, the lowest monthly sales figure since January 1991, according to Autodata Corp. and Ward's AutoInfoBank.
"This is clearly a severe, severe recession for the U.S. automotive industry and something we really can't sustain," said Mike DiGiovanni, General Motors Corp.'s executive director of global market and industry analysis who said the government should speed up actions to thaw out frozen credit. "There really needs to be actions focused on the consumer and available credit."
GM's sales plunged 45 percent in October, the worst drop of any major automaker. Chrysler LLC, which is in talks to be acquired by GM as a way for both companies to survive in the current climate, saw a 35 percent decline. Ford Motor Co.'s sales dropped 30 percent.
Japanese companies weren't immune from the carnage, with Toyota Motor Corp. sales down 23 percent despite a zero-percent financing offer. Honda Motor Co.'s sales dropped 25 percent and Nissan Motor Co.'s sales tumbled 33 percent.
October's seasonally adjusted annual sales rate of 10.6 million vehicles was worst the since February 1983 and far below the rate of 16 million a year earlier, Auto-data said. The closely watched figure indicates what sales would be if they remained at their current rate all year, with adjustments for seasonal fluctuations.
"There are no hot segments or really hot products," said George Pipas, Ford's top sales analyst.
The figures were especially troublesome for GM and Ford, both of which are trying to conserve cash and stay in business long enough to outlast a severe economic downturn. Neither company had any idea when sales might rebound to more normal levels.
Emily Kolinski Morris, Ford's senior economist, said that because automobiles are more durable than in the past, people can wait without buying a new vehicle until they feel more confident in the economy.
"The answer to when we will start to come out of that trough lies in when the economy comes out of that trough," Kolinski Morris said.