The new model waiting to be unwrapped
The battle between the market leader Ford and fast improving Vauxhall for the lion’s share of the fleet market for medium cars, represented by their Sierra and Cavalier models, is one of the most bitter confrontations we in Britain have seen for a long time.
“Those two are not taking many prisoners and that means give away prices, follow up services and five star attention”, was how the fleet sales manager of a rival manufacturer put it. It is not difficult to sec why the two American groups are concentrating so much of their time and resources on this one sector.
Medium cars account for some 60 per cent of all cars sold in Britain and more than half are bought by companies or professional men and women. That means 500,000 cars a year on the basis of last year’s 1.79 million new car registrations. In truth, however, the medium sector is tending to divide itself into lower and upper groupings with cars like the Escort and Astra in the lower bracket. Austin Rover’s Maestro now approaching its first birthday, has tried to keep a foot in both camps because it is a little longer than Escort and offers more interior space.
Maestro has made promising inroads into fleet business but if Austin Rover is to improve on its 18.5 per cent market share it must do a great deal better. For far too long it has not had suitable models for this very demanding sector. Maestro was a start but it does not compete head on with Sierra or Cavalier.
LM11 will rectify that in April. Ever since Maestro was launched the industry’s grapevine has been full of rumours about LM11. It was said to be a booted version of the hatchback Maestro but reports to that effect caused tempers to rise at Austin Rover’s Coventry headquarters. Company sources insisted that LM11 soon to be called Montego, only bears a family likeness to Maestro and is in fact much larger. Unofficial photographs seem to support this.
Brian Mahony, Austin Rover’s UK sales director, says: “LM11 is probably the most vital ingredient in the company’s recovery plans. It is pitched directly at Cavalier and Sierra. More and more we are taking the views of fleet operators into our new product designs. Those who have seen pre-production models have been impressed”.
The importance of LM11 is underlined by the changes that have been made in the company’s fleet sales department to prepare for its arrival. In the past year another 50 fleet sales staff have been recruited and re-organised into three divisions under Jeffery Johnson, the fleet sales director. For the first time private and public sector fleet sales have their own sales team. Both are backed by an entirely new departure for a BL company, a “Think Tank” to look after long term fleet strategy and sales developments. It will be seen by fleet operators, who over the years have been very critical of BL’s lack of attention to fleet needs, as clear evidence of its determination to break with the bad old days.
Vauxhall is the new blue eyed boy in the fleet business. In September 1981 when the front wheel drive Cavalier was launched the General Motors company held a little over 8 per cent of the fleet market. At the end of last year it was claiming 16.5 per cent and within the crucial medium sector was holding a remarkable 25 to 30 per cent. John Pugh, Vauxhall’s fleet sales manager, is quite insistent that there has never been anything approaching Cavalier’s impact on fleet buyers.
“They are a notoriously conservative bunch where new cars are concerned preferring to sit back and let someone else iron out the bugs. That did not happen with Cavalier. Right from the start they took to it and they have been buying it in increasing numbers ever since. ”
But even that remarkable start is nothing compared with the spin-offs. Cavalier drew the attention of fleet buyers to the rest of Vauxhall’s rejuvenated range of models and Astra in particular.
“At the lower end we are giving full support to Nova which is now coming into freer supply and in the bigger car market the Carlton is a success story and a half with sales up from 4,000 in 1982 to 20,000 last year. It is a very fully equipped de luxe saloon which comes in below the 1800cc income tax ceiling and that makes it a very attractive package”.
Ford is acutely aware of the increased competition already in the field and the extra pressure that will be created by LM11.
“As the market leader for a long time we appreciate more than anyone else that our competitors can only make progress at our expense and there is no way we are going to take that lying down. We shall increase our efforts even further”, was how a company spokesman summed it up. Commenting on latest trends in the fleet and business car sector, Tony Semper, Ford’s fleet development manager, said: “The true cost of running a fleet of company cars is more apparent than ever now because inflation has been reduced so significantly. As a consequence the growth of specialist fleet management companies has slowed up. They are still widely used however for their leasing expertise by the middle sized companies who do not have the resources to support their own in-house fleet administration department.”
On the choice of cars he said the medium or C/D sector was shrinking and been doing so for the past three years. Downsizing to smaller, less expensive cars was a contributory factor as companies were forced to reduce transport costs. Another important influence was the personal income tax penalty applying to bigger cars.