Deep in the heart of Texas, a Chevy dealership is almost empty of super-sized trucks and full of promise for the battered U.S. auto industry.
Two months ago I had 80 of these, and now I only have a handful, dealer Butch Watson said as he pointed to a few extended cab Silverado pickup trucks hulking in one corner of his lot near Dallas.
They say everything is bigger in Texas and pickup trucks are no exception.
Not only do they bulk up here -- there are heftier Texas editions of some models such as the Chevrolet Silverado built by General Motors Co -- but the state is also the world's largest and richest single market for pickup trucks.
So analysts are scanning Texas for the first glimmer of recovery in truck sales that would give a much needed lift to U.S. automakers laid low by the global recession and last year's historically high gas prices.
Our pick-up sales are up 18 percent in the first eight months of this year, said Watson, whose Chuck Fairbanks Chevrolet is one of the largest dealerships in north Texas.
Many of his sales for larger models such as one-ton trucks are to horse and cattle ranchers, Watson said.
Erich Merkle, an industry consultant at Autoconomy.com, said evidence from dealers and automakers points to the start of a recovery in both the economy and the truck market.
The volume and where the recovery is going to come is in pickup trucks. Merkle said. Pickup trucks are not dead. They are far from dead in this country.
Ford Motor Co, the longtime leader in pickup trucks, also has seen tentative signs that the worst is over. The automaker reported a monthly sales increase for its F-Series pickup trucks in August, the first in nearly three years.
Since pickup trucks are the staple vehicle in the U.S. construction industry, many analysts tie a rebound in sales to an uptick in spending on housing and infrastructure.
Toyota Motor Corp is bolstering pickup production due to signs of a strengthening in the housing sector. Sales of its Tundra model reached a 2009 peak in August but remain down 53 percent on the year.
WHAT'S GOOD FOR DALLAS IS GOOD FOR DETROIT
The truck market has been highly profitable for U.S. automakers and it ranks as the last segment that the battered Detroit companies dominate.
I think it's critical for the turnaround of the Detroit three, Merkle said of a recovery in the pickup truck market. It really will help companies like Ford and General Motors particularly and to a certain extent Chrysler.
Other Texas dealers have also seen brisker truck sales though they say the immediate outlook remains uncertain.
I sold 31 F-150 pickup trucks last month compared to 17 in August of 2008. But it's very hard to judge one month and so far September has been deadsville, said Cliff Johnson, president of Texas Motors Ford in Fort Worth.
David Keck, the general manager of Grande Ford in San Antonio, which only sells pickups, said sales had started to recover from a low base over the past two months. Overall, 2009 remains down 30 percent compared to 2008, he said.
We have been noticing a lot more quote activity on the fleet side, and that's good, and we're getting more traffic on the retail side, he said.
Keck said his dealership had not benefited much from the U.S. government cash-for-clunkers program, which offered cash incentives to turn in low mileage gas guzzlers.
The program boosted U.S. auto industry sales last month above the 1 million mark for the first time in a year and to a year-over-year sales increase for the first time in 21 months.
In a nod to the importance of the Texas truck market, Toyota chose San Antonio earlier this decade when it wanted to build a new plant for its Tundra, a full-size truck aimed at hard-core truckers still loyal to Ford and Chevy.
But the Tundra's launch in 2006 came just as the market began to turn lower.
Despite Toyota's best efforts to win over Texas and the rest of the country, the Tundra still represents just 7 percent of the market. As a result, the Japanese automaker has had to shift production of its smaller Tacoma to San Antonio to keep lines moving in the three-year-old plant.
Despite the recent slump, pickups remain a very visible icon of Texan culture.
In the parking lot of a massive Dallas-area Bass Pro shop that caters to the hunting and fishing crowd, about half of the vehicles in the parking lot were pickup trucks.
I fish and pull a boat. I can haul things with this, said 65-year-old Chet Lewis, a retired commercial trucker, as he stood by his 2005 Dodge Ram in the Bass Pro parking lot.
(Reporting by Ed Stoddard; Additional reporting by Jim Forsyth in San Antonio and David Bailey in Detroit; Editing by Richard Chang)