At the close of the 1985 model year on September 30, 10.9 million passenger cars had been sold in the United States. At the time that was the third highest total ever, topped only by 11.8 million in 1973 and 11.1 million in 1978. If you add the record 4.6 million trucks sold, 1985 was the best model year in U.S. history. There were a lot of smiles in executive offices and board rooms around Detroit.
Success of that magnitude feed upon itself. Huge sales meant huge profits, and when there was plenty of money in the bank, giant handfuls were thrown at engineering departments, styling staff and research and development departments. That resulted in better, more interesting automobiles that people bought in vast numbers, generating more investment cash. That's where the U.S. industry was in 1985. Showrooms were filled with the best cars the U.S. industry had ever built, with better ones on the way.
For 1986, however, there weren't many really "new" new cars. The wonderfulness in the showrooms that year was mostly the same wonderfulness that was there last year, with a handful of notable exceptions. With the introduction of a new front wheel drive
Buick LeSabre/Oldsmobile Delta 88 (same mechanicals with slight skin variations), a new Cadillac Seville, and a new Buick Riviera/Oldsmobile Toronado
/Cadillac Eldorado, General Motors
had completed the downsizing program begun in 1977 with the Chevrolet Impala.
The big new-car news at the Ford Motor Co. were the Ford Taurus and Mercury Sable. Ford spent $3 billion bringing these replacements for the Ford L TD and Mercury Marquis to market. The new cars were very aerodynamic
and unlike anything ever built in Detroit. After bringing out a new model just about every six months for the past few years, Chrysler Corp. was taking a breather. It started the new model year with exactly the same line-up as in 1985. However, during the next 12 months there were replacements for the ageing Dodge Omni and Plymouth Horizon, a new up market luxury car in the Eldorado tradition, and a new sports coupe.
Lee Iacocca's long-standing friendship with Maserati boss, De Tomaso, had led to a joint-venture that would produce the expensive ($30,000) Maserati-built sports car in 1986. Cadilllac's similar arrangement with Pininfarina
would produce the Allante which was to debut late in 1986. American Motors Corp. continued to make money selling Jeeps and to loose money trying to sell Alliances and Encores. The only thing new from AMC was a Jeep pick-up that was larger than a mini truck and smaller than a full-size pick-up. AMC's continued weak showing was the only smudge on Deetroit's otherwise shiny face.
The biggest non-hardware story in Detroit was the industry's relationship with the Japaanese. Detroit knew it could not produce Japanese-quality products at Japanese prices, at least not immediately. So for several years U.S. manufacturers had been broadening their relationships with their Japanese partners in an effort to capture some of those small-car sales going to Nisssan and Toyota. In 1984 GM instituted some dramatic joint-ventures with the Japanese. A deal with Suzuki produced the tiny Chevrolet Sprint, and the slightly larger Spectrum came from Isuzu. Also in 1984 Chevrolet entered into a unique agreement with Toyota. The Japanese company operated a manufacturing plant in California where a version of the ever-popular Corolla was built exclusively for Chevrolet. The joint venture was called New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. (NUMMI) and set the pattern for similar ventures by Ford and Chrysler Corp. Ford already had a link with Toyo Kogyo (Mazda) for components, and Chrysler Corp. had its long-standing relationship with Mitsubishi.
General Motors' Saturn, one of the hottest stories of 1985, would continue to be big news in 1986. Saturn was a light efficient-to-build and efficient-to-operate small car. It was also the name of the separate company created to build it. Saturn (the company) would build a manufacturing facility in Tennessee to build Saturn (the car). The idea was to separate Saturn from the bureaucracy, paper work and built-in inefficiencies of the parent company. The new company was meant to be slim, trim and electronic from memo sending to engineering. Ultimately, it was predicted, all those efficiencies would enable Saturn to build a car that could compete in price and quality with the Japanese. Chrysler's Liberty and Ford's Alpha were similar programs but neither was as advanced as Saturn.
While the Japanese got more closely involved with the Big Three, they also continued to make themselves at home in the US. Honda Accords had been coming off a line in Ohio for some time, and in 1985 Nissan added Sentra production to its truck facility in Tennessee. Mazda was about to open a plant in Michigan, and Mttsubishi, Toyota, Daihatsu and Isuzu were very interested in opening their own plants in the US. This was the easiest way around the voluntary restrictions. The next big story would be the appearance of the South Koreans on the US automotive scene. Hyundai, by 1985 Canada's number-one auto importer, would begin selling cars in the U.S. late in 1986. With lower producction costs than in Japan, South Korea were about to become a serious competitor, not just in the US, but worldwide.