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Ford vehicle sales fell 12.5% in first quarter, F-150 still truck king

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co.'s sales fell 12.5% in the first three months of the year, the automaker said Thursday, following the dismal results of other carmakers who reported their numbers the previous day, as the pandemic closes dealerships across many parts of the country.

The sales drop was the largest of the Detroit Three automakers with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles down 10% for the quarter and General Motors Co. off 7% as government-mandated stay-at-home orders and a souring economy slowed buyer traffic to a crawl.

Ford's vehicle sales fell the most of the Detroit automakers, as plants remain closed and more dealerships are forced to lock their doors.

But the Detroit truck wars raged on, with Ford maintaining its crown as best-selling truck brand.

Other bright spots included Lincoln and the Mustang, which both gained sales ahead of what is sure to be a harrowing April. With most of the country anticipated to be in lockdown against the coronavirus storm, analysts expect auto sales to erode by 80%.

"Our Ford team is working around the clock on everything from building healthcare equipment, assisting our dealership network and providing our customers peace of mind through deferred vehicle payments," said U.S. Ford marketing chief Mark LaNeve. 

Dealer incentives were a big reason that Ford's overall pickup sales were off only 5.4% as J.D. Power reported that automakers shoveled truckloads of incentives, including no-interest loans, to maintain volume in their most profitable segment. Ford's truck line includes F-Series and Ranger pickups, medium- and heavy-duty trucks, Transit vans, Transit Connect and E-Series vans.

Though even the mighty F-series was not immune to COVID-19's effects with sales off 13.1%, it maintained its status as America's best-selling vehicle with 186,562 units sold. Chevy SIlverado sales were 143,698 while Ram clocked in at 128,805.

Overall, GM, FCA, and Ford gained a whopping 11 points in U.S. market share thanks to healthy pickup sales.

Another Ford icon, the Mustang, also continued to dominate sales in the muscle car segment. With the twin GT350/Shelby GT500 performance snakes in the showroom for the first time ever, Mustang sales gained 6.8% to 18,069 vehicles, outdistancing second-place Dodge Challenger at 12,138.

Mustang's success has inspired a sub-brand that is moving full speed ahead despite the coronavirus. The first-ever electric car, the Mustang Mach E, is due later this year.

Lincoln sales jump of 6.9% bodes well for Ford’s resurgent luxury brand for when markets return to normal. The gain came in the face of deep luxury sales losses from Lexus, BMW, and Audi as key premium markets like California and New York shuttered (although they are still permitted to do online sales, unlike Michigan). New York alone accounts for 14% of U.S. luxury sales.

Lincoln has recast itself as an SUV-oriented brand with the all-new, mid-size Aviator and compact Corsair lifting sales. Once a geriatric brand, Lincoln's fastest rate of growth for Q1 came from the 35-44 year old demographic.

Analysts cautioned, however, that luxury and performance cars are likely to see the steepest falls in the current climate, putting more pressure on automakers like Ford to incentivize the sales of meat-and-potatoes trucks and vans.

“As the situation wears on, we may see that buyers in the next weeks will be interested in more practical automotive purchases, along with many buyers opting to delay planned purchases," said IHS Markit analyst Stephanie Brinley. "The delay could impact discretionary vehicle purchases, like sporty cars and sedans or high-performance cars and utilities, even more sharply than daily-use vehicles." 

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.