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Best-Sellers of 2004

Images courtesy of the Red Cross.

January 17, 2005, by Bill Cawthon

Before getting to my topic this time, I need to make a couple of detours. First, I want to call your attention to the Promotex offer devoted to raising money for the tsunami relief efforts. I especially want you to note that all of the money you decide to contribute for your truck will go to the Red Cross. Not just the profits, all the money. You get the Spur tanker; the Red Cross gets the money - a heckuva deal. Click on the link for full details.

Second, Herpa has another potential livery for its Wings model of the Airbus A380. On January 11, UPS placed a firm order for ten A380-800Fs, the cargo version of the giant aircraft, and took options for ten more. The first will be delivered in 2009. The A380-800F can handle 165 tons of cargo, which is a lot of packages.

It's now the new car show season. As I write this, the Los Angeles Auto Show is coming to a close, the Tokyo Auto Salon is starting its three-day run and the 2005 North American International Auto Show is getting set to open in Detroit. For the past few days in the Motor City, the automakers have been showing off their latest and greatest to the press.

Of course, along with the shiny new cars and trucks, there is the usual bevy of concept vehicles, some sleek (Chrysler Firepower), some silly (Ford SYN US, which looks like a Scion xB or Honda Element gone horribly bad).

Some of the vehicles displayed as concepts will likely make it to production in some form. Of these, two are most likely the last chance for their respective brands. The Jaguar Advanced Lightweight Coupe foreshadows what to expect when the company replaces its XK sports car. Jag is in serious trouble as it has consistently failed to meet its goals and Ford has already announced the closing of Jaguar's legendary Browns Lane production facility. The word in the industry is that if Jaguar can't turn around, Ford will shut it down.

The second is the Aura, which is supposed to give us an idea of what the next mid-sized Saturn sedan might look like. Along with the new Sky coupe, the Aura is aimed at restoring interest in the Saturn brand. One can't help but wonder where these cars were a couple years ago. The recently discontinued Vectra-based L-Series was a flop and, far from restoring Saturn to its top-ten standing of the mid-1990s, the ION has been a major disappointment. Despite Saturn's strengths of great customer experience and service, the car's tacky interiors, middling build quality and questionable quirks like the center-mounted speedometer have produced abysmal sales, buoyed only by the fairly successful VUE SUV. Far from its original concept as a new car company, Saturn is either well on its way to becoming just another GM division or well on its way to joining Oldsmobile. GM is beefing up the Saturn line with one of the four clones of its new "sport crossover" minivan, but unless a car can light a fire under sales, the clock is most likely ticking. The Sky is slated for production in 2006, but we'll have to see if the Aura gets the green light.

Artist's conception of the Airbus A380-800F in UPS colors. Image courtesy of Airbus.

2004 was a pretty good year for auto sales in the United States. In fact, it was the best sales year since 2001, coming up just shy of 17 million cars and light trucks. That's nearly a quarter-million more sales than 2003. Lots of records were set, including a new record for the industry-leading Ford F-Series pickups, which effortlessly cruised to a twenty-third consecutive year as the best-selling vehicle in the land. Ford sold 939,511 F-Series in 2004, which is more than the total sales of every manufacturer except GM, Chrysler, Toyota and Honda.

One record Detroit does not want to discuss is the share of sales that went to import brands. The Motown manufacturers ended up with their smallest piece of the new vehicle market in history, dropping under 60% in 2004. Even more embarrassing is the fact that no American-badged car was among the top three last year, something that hasn't happened since Americans began building automobiles in the late 19th Century. The Toyota Camry, Honda Accord and Honda Civic took the top three spots, leaving the Chevrolet Impala out of the winner's circle in fourth place. Ford's cast-off Taurus, which had been the best-selling American car since 1989, finished sixth on its way to becoming rental-fleet fodder.

GM's new Saturn Sky is so good-looking, you wonder where these stylists were when the ION was being developed. Photos courtesy of GM.

Americans continued to prefer trucks and truckoids (station wagons pretending to be trucks) to conventional automobiles last year. Nearly fifty-six of every one hundred vehicles sold was a pickup, minivan, SUV or crossover. What was once Detroit's impregnable fortress is under siege as Japanese, Korean and European manufacturers pick up sales in the light truck market. Though Ford GM and Chrysler are still dominant in full-size pickups and full-size vans, the imports now account for roughly 40% of minivan and SUV sales and 36.5% of compact pickup sales.

While the majority of import brands improved their sales records in 2004, Chrysler was the only American brand to join them. GM and Ford both lost ground as sales of big truck-based SUVs slowed and car sales continued to drop. Incidentally, it's amazing what a difference time makes: this year (2005) marks the fortieth anniversary of GM setting the all-time record for sales of a single model line in one year. It was in 1965 that Chevrolet sold a record 1.1 million Impalas. Perhaps that car's descendent will make it into the top three this year.

Chrysler enjoyed a nice Hemi-powered sales boost last year as the new 300 helped set an all-time record for sales of Chrysler-brand vehicles. In fact, the 300 was DaimlerChrysler's best-selling car in December and was less than 600 sales away from beating the Neon in total volume for the year.

The Ford F-Series pickup was America's favorite vehicle in 2004. The last time another pickup outsold the F-Series, Jimmy Carter was President of the United States. Photo courtesy of Ford Motor Co.

Chrysler continued to be the dominant player in the minivan market. The Dodge Caravan enjoyed a nice 83,000-sales lead over the second-place Toyota Sienna and the two Chrysler minivans easily beat the combined total sales of all Ford and GM minivans.

Last year was a good one to be a luxury car manufacturer as most of them reported record sales. Premium brands have done well in recent years and took nearly 11% of all vehicle sales in 2004. Lexus added another notch as the RX330 drove it to a fifth consecutive year as the top upscale brand in the U.S. BMW came in second, while Cadillac passed Mercedes-Benz to claim third. Volvo and Porsche set new records as the Swedes squeezed past Lincoln to become Ford's most popular premium brand.

In the rarified heights of the ultra-premium brands, Rolls-Royce sold more cars than Maybach, proving that distinctively ugly beats techno-bland in the world of high-dollar cars. However, estimates are that Bentley outsold both the Roller and Maybach, proving that at least some of the super-rich have good taste. Ferrari and Lamborghini sold everything they built, just like they do every year. Porsche sold 189 Carrera GTs and DaimlerChrysler moved 45 SLR McLarens. Ford sold 144 GTs and then had to recall them all.

One of 2004's big changes was BMW surpassing Volkswagen to become the best-selling German brand in the United States. In an interesting twist, both Volkswagen and Mercedes actually sold more cars than BMW last year. BMW's top ranking came from VW's continued slump and the strength of the new X3 SUV.

Looking ahead to the end of 2005, it's possible we'll see some changes at the top. While the Ford F-Series will likely cruise through another year whipping up on the GM full-size pickups, the Explorer is likely to be passed by the Chevy TrailBlazer as the most popular SUV. Backed by hefty incentives, the TrailBlazer has been eating into the Explorer's lead all year and actually passed it in December. Ford has already lost the lead among American passenger cars and it doesn't look like the Five Hundred is going to recapture the Taurus' glory days.

Another Ford likely to lose its top spot is the aged Ranger compact pickup. Ford has left this one unchanged just a little too long and either the Chevy Colorado or Toyota Tacoma (or both) will probably outsell it in 2005.

Of most significance to loyalists is the likelihood that the bowtie will replace the blue oval as Chevrolet becomes America's favorite vehicle brand. Chevy had closed the gap to just 11,000 sales in November, but GM hiccupped in December, so the gap widened a bit. Still, as sales of a number of Ford's products continue to droop, the chances are good that newer vehicles like the TrailBlazer, Equinox and Cobalt will shift leadership from Dearborn to the Renaissance Center.

You won't be surprised to learn that 2004 was not a good year for 1:87 scale models of current American vehicles. Thanks to some nice diecasts from Model Power, we didn't come up empty again, but there's a lot more that could be done.

Of course, there were lots of nice models of German vehicles and, while Americans didn't buy quite as many German cars in 2004 as they did in 2003, they still snapped up the best part of 850,000 cars and SUVs from Audi, BMW, Mercedes, Porsche and Volkswagen. Here are the sales totals for the cars that have a ready-to-run model in 1:87 scale:

A bunch of those models are available from Promotex Online. I added links to catalog pages with the Herpa models in the list to make it easy to check out any you might be missing.

See you next time!

- Bill Cawthon

Bill Cawthon is a modeler and collector. His primary hobby interests are vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales and model railroading. He is senior editor of Route 1-87, the magazine of the 1/87 Vehicle Club, and a columnist and product reviewer for Model Railroad News. He is one of the creators of the award-winning "Grimy Gulch" model railroad layout.

In real life, Bill is a marketing and public relations consultant for MARK III Systems, a successful information technology company. He also writes for, an international auto industry publication, reporting on the U.S. light vehicle industry.

He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife, Marge, and their children.

Bill's columns appear twice monthly on Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.


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published by Cadabra Corp. This page was lasted updated: October 25, 2005