Manufacturing & Technology

Foreign auto plants-yes, foreign automobiles-no: Ford and Chevy tops in all 92 Indiana counties

November 6, 2006

Hoosier workers and community leaders want Honda and Toyota jobs, but the vast majority of them don't want their cars, at least not yet.

At a time when employment by the Big Three automakers is plummeting throughout the state, 80.6 percent of Indiana vehicles registered by the Indiana Bureau of Motor Vehicles are domestic.

Hoosiers' taste for domestic models is in stark contrast with the rest of the country. Nationwide, domestics account for just 51 percent of the market.

"I think these numbers are somewhat historical," said Jerry Conover, who headed a county-by-county study of Hoosiers' automobile buying habits for the Indiana Business Research Center at Indiana University's Kelley School of Business. "Indiana has had a lot of people in the automotive or auto parts manufacturing sectors, working for domestic companies, and that has an effect on buying tendencies."

But many industry insiders were surprised by the domestic dominance. Tom O'Brien Jr., vice president of the O'Brien Automotive Family, would have estimated Indiana's domestic market share closer to 60 percent.

"I wouldn't have envisioned those numbers," said O'Brien, whose dealerships sell Chryslers, Jeeps and Toyotas.

But Ball State University economist Patrick Barkey said several factors contribute to the heavy domestic buying bias of Hoosiers.

"Sometimes, we don't appreciate how different Indiana is," Barkey said. "We are the most manufacturing-intense state in the nation measured by employment and income. Unionized manufacturing employees are one of the most loyal groups of buyers of American products, especially when another union-like the [United Auto Workers]-is involved.

"We're also a rural state and a blue collar state, and those two sectors lean toward pickup trucks, where you see domestic domination."

Local Ford dealers said trucks represents 70 percent of their sales, while Chevy dealers said trucks make up 60 percent of their sales.

"Indiana is a patriotic state," said Gary Pedigo, who operates Pedigo Chevrolet on West 38th Street and in Mooresville. "But I think these [domestic sales] numbers are about more than that. Pickup truck sales are solid because they now come with the same luxuries as an automobile and, for many local people, their versatility is more practical."

Tom Wood Automotive isn't seeing domestic domination.

"Honda and Toyota are our top sellers by an increasing margin," said Roger Keller, operations director for the group that sells 17 types of vehicles, including Ford, Pontiac and GMC in addition to Toyota and Honda. "We can't keep enough [Toyota and Honda] inventory on the lot."

At Tom Wood, it takes, on average, 26 days to sell a new Honda or Toyota after it enters the lot. Ford has an average shelf life of 84 days, General Motors 88 days, and Chrysler 101 days, Keller said.

"I think that tells you where the trend is heading," Keller said.

But old habits won't evaporate overnight, economists said.

Ford and Chevrolet occupy the top two spots in all 92 Indiana counties, with Chevrolet holding the top spot in 78 counties and Ford in the other 14. Chevrolet has 17.7 percent of the Indiana market and Ford 14.4 percent.

Employee discounts are a big factor in new-vehicle sales for Ford and Chevy, auto dealers said.

Not only do employees of the automakers themselves get discounts, but employees of parts makers also get rate cuts. And recently, several domestic automakers have extended those discounts to more distant family members and even employees' friends.

Local dealers estimated that two of every three Fords or Chevys sold in Indiana are on an employee discount. But with Toyota locating in Princeton in southeast Indiana, and Honda building a plant in Greensburg, the tide could shift.

"Toyota and Honda obviously have a proven product, so they're poised to make a move here," Conover said. "But they have some serious ground to make up."

Worldwide, Toyota is poised to become the No. 1 automaker, and Honda isn't far behind. In Indiana, however, Toyota ranks No. 7 and Honda No. 8 behind the likes of Pontiac, Buick, Oldsmobile and Dodge. Toyota has only 4.9 percent of Indiana's market, and Honda only 4.7 percent.

In contrast, foreign makes in California have more than 60 percent of the market, with Toyota and Honda better than 10 percent each.

Even in Indiana's more metropolitan areas, Chevy and Ford have commanding leads. In Marion County, for instance, Chevy has 16.5 percent of the market and Ford has 14 percent. Honda has 6.4 percent and Toyota has 5.7 percent of the market. The numbers of foreign autos in Hamilton County are slightly higher than in Marion County, with Honda having 8.9-percent and Toyota 6.9-percent market share while Chevy has 13.6 percent and Ford 11.7 percent.

Conover's study found that residents of Floyd, Hamilton and Monroe counties are the most likely Hoosiers to own a foreign-made car or truck. Hamilton County has the highest concentration of pricey Acuras, BMWs, Jaguars, Mercedes and Porsches.

Conover's study revealed there's no shortage of domestic hot spots around the state, even in some counties where the domestic vehicle factories have vacated. Henry County, for instance, has a higher concentration of Chryslers, Dodges and Plymouths than do most other Indiana counties. Chrysler had been the largest employer in Henry County since the 1920s before selling the New Castle operation in 2004.

There are other factors, Conover said, that could add to the domestic dominance, including the number of Indiana dealers that sell certain kinds of vehicles and the availability of parts and service centers.

"We're a mobile society, but proximity still plays a big part in people's buying habits," Conover said.

Economists think Hoosiers' deep-seated buying habits could take a decade or more to uproot.

"Just because a Honda or Toyota plant locates in your hometown, even if you land a job there, doesn't mean you go out and buy a car made by them next week," Conover said. "The decision on what type of car to buy is as much emotional as economical. There's a strong Chevy and Ford heritage here."
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