DETROIT — America is getting back to work, and it needs pickup trucks.
Strong truck demand in March drove U.S. auto sales to their highest monthly total since August 2007, as everyone from oil and gas producers to local home builders raced to replace the aging trucks they held onto during the recession. Total sales in March reached 1.45 million, according to AutoData, as overall auto sales rose 3.4 percent from March of last year.
"I think day-to-day business is the best it's been in five years," said Tim Parker, owner of a Chrysler-Dodge-Jeep-Ram dealer in Hot Springs, Ark. Parker recently joined a Chrysler program that helps him stock pickups so he has inventory ready when business owners come calling.
March is typically a good month for the auto industry. Many car buyers put their tax refund checks toward a down payment. And Japanese automakers, whose fiscal year ends in March, often juice sales with big incentives to end the year on a high note.
But this year had additional incentives for buyers. Fuel prices ended the month lower than a year ago. The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell to a five-year low during March. Interest rates are low. And the stock market — which is a strong predictor of auto sales — closed the first quarter with the S&P 500 at an all-time high.
Pickup trucks were the big drivers in March. General Motors, Ford and Chrysler sold a total of 154,722 full-size pickups, up 14 percent from a year ago. It was the third straight month that pickup sales have outpaced overall industry sales.
Pickup truck sales should keep increasing through this year and at least into early next year, said Jeff Schuster, senior vice president of forecasting for LMC Automotive, a Detroit-area forecasting firm.
"I think the pickup truck battle is starting to heat up at the same time demand heats up," Schuster said.
After seeing the pace of March sales, Edmunds raised its full-year U.S. sales forecast from 15 million to 15.5 million. That's still below the high of almost 17 million in 2005, but nearly 50 percent better than the 10.4 million vehicles sold in 2009. Things look so good that some analysts think automakers will have to increase production and hire more workers to keep up.
Automakers have added 125,800 jobs since February of 2010. That's a nearly 20 percent increase in industry employment, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Michael Robinet, managing director of IHS Automotive, which tracks production, said many U.S. auto plants are running almost around-the-clock to meet demand.