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The Credit Crisis Impact on Fleet? Look to 1973 for Clues

November 17, 2008, by Mike Antich - Also by this author

By Mike Antich

Fuel prices hit record highs. The cost of financing a fleet doubles. Used-vehicle values plummet. Dealers are unable to sell the vehicles they have in inventory. Geopolitically, the U.S. is embroiled in war and the macro-economy teeters on recession. If you think I'm talking about 2008, think again. The year was 1973.

This year is the 35th anniversary of the Arab Oil Embargo. The 1973 oil embargo, along with the 1973-74 stock market crash, has been the only event since the Great Depression to have an ongoing effect on the country's economy. The embargo began on Oct. 15, when members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC, consisting of the Arab members of OPEC, plus Egypt and Syria) announced an oil embargo to the U.S., Western Europe, and Japan in retaliation of the U.S. decision to resupply the Israeli military during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

The oil embargo and resulting fuel shortage shook the U.S. fleet industry to its core, causing it to experience the greatest change since its inception. The fallout from the oil embargo was far-reaching and shaped the fleet industry of today. As a student of fleet history, I believe the oil embargo of 1973 offers insights into the current impact of the credit crisis on fleet and, more importantly, its future consequences. If you put credence in the observation that history is the prelude that shapes today, then this moment in fleet history deserves re-examination. Much can be learned about the long-term effects of today's credit crisis based on what happened to fleet in the early 1970s.

 A Period of Crisis

The early 1970s was a period of incredible challenges for the fleet industry. Literally overnight, gasoline prices skyrocketed, dramatically increasing fleet operating costs. Gasoline prices increased 100 percent for fleet vehicles that averaged only nine to 15 miles per gallon, at best. There was tremendous pressure from corporate senior management to make fleets more fuel efficient. Consequently, there was a rush to replace entire fleets with smaller cars and the need was to do it right now. Back then, in-service periods were very similar to today. Full-size cars were kept in service for 24 to 36 months with 60,000 or more miles. In the three months following the start of the oil embargo, a literal panic developed at many companies, forcing fleet managers into making hasty and costly miscalculations. At this time, these decisions appeared justified. In many areas of the country, there was no fuel to buy at any price. Fuel availability was uncertain and long lines formed at gasoline stations on the rumor of an impending fuel shipment. Many who lived through that period remember it as a time of panic and knee-jerk reactions in all segments of the automotive industry.

 Permanent Change in Fleet Buying Patterns

Not only were gasoline prices rising, used-vehicle prices plummeted due to the collapse in the sale of full-size automobiles. Within 30 days of the start of the oil embargo, the resale value of a two-year old Chevrolet Impala was cut in half. Fleet managers saw wild fluctuations in used-car prices, averaging $500 for the same model of car within a four-month period. Prior to the fuel crisis, the average full-size fleet car had a used vehicle value of approximately $1,600, so these gyrations were jaw-dropping. Ultimately, the resale market rebounded in April 1974, but not until tens of millions of resale dollars evaporated.

The fuel crisis dramatically changed the complexity of running a fleet. In 1973, the typical fleet vehicles were the Chevrolet Impala, Ford Galaxie, and Plymouth Fury. The immediate impact of the fuel shortage was increased consideration of smaller cars for fleet service. The wholesale market for full-size fleet cars dried up as few dealers or wholesalers bid on these units. Although resale prices were down overall, the cars bringing the best return were the intermediate-size cars. As a consequence, many fleet managers decided their 1974 and 1975 model-year selectors would consist of as many intermediate-size cars as possible. Fleets began to change their buying patterns. More fleets followed this acquisition trend in the ensuing years. In 1973, most fleet had a model mix of 75-percent full-size cars and 25-percent intermediate cars. The shift to primarily intermediate models was a dramatic turnaround in a business that was very conservative and slow to change product mix. Fleets operating full-size cars were downsizing to intermediates or shifting from intermediates to compacts and eventually to K-cars. Not only were vehicle sizes changing, but so were engine specifications. In the early 1970s, most fleet cars were equipped with eight-cylinder engines. The fuel crisis caused fleets to shift to six-cylinder engines and to include diesel engine passenger cars in some fleets. The diesel engine autos proved to be disastrous decision for some fleet managers. 

Financing also changed dramatically in this time frame. At that time, financing was sourced from the auto manufacturers at Prime or Prime plus one. The fuel crisis caused a dramatic increase in the cost to fund a fleet. By July 1974, the Prime Rate rose to an unprecedented 12 percent, just about double the highest levels of the prior 20 years. This resulted in the highest interest rates in 50 years. This set the stage for the future growth of fleet leasing as a method of funding fleet acquisitions. In 1981, further impetus was given to fleet leasing when the Swift Dodge vs. IRS court decision legitimized the use of the TRAC clause in an open-end lease.

The oil embargo caused great uncertainty in the auto industry, and by the time it was over, a whole new world had emerged for the fleet manager. Besides dramatically more expensive fuel, the composition of vehicle types within fleets changed significantly. One consequence to the change in fleet composition was that the industry began to be concerned about fuel management, which nobody cared about before. As fleets transitioned employees to smaller cars, driver safety became a greater consideration. In the final analysis, the oil embargo created fundamental and permanent changes in the composition of fleets, how they operated, and the services provided to drivers.

 What are the Lessons for Today's Crisis?

From my perspective, the key lesson of the oil embargo of 1973 is that monumental economic disruptions produce permanent change within an industry. My prediction is that the "Great Credit Gridlock of 2008," for lack of a better descriptor, will likewise produce dramatic (and permanent) change within the fleet industry similar to the sweeping changes that emanated from the fuel crisis three decades earlier. The fleet industry will weather the severe economic turmoil of 2008-2009 and emerge stronger, but different. This has been the pattern for every past crisis that has confronted the fleet industry.

Here are the probable outcomes to today's credit crisis:

  •         The cost to operate a fleet will increase in terms of acquisition, funding, and operating expenses. In the long term, the fleet industry will survive because there will always be a need for company-provided transportation for sales and service. However, the cost of this transportation promises to become more expensive. I predict this will prompt many companies to seek a "technological solution" to counter higher fleet costs, primarily through the adoption of telematics-based fleet management programs.
  •          The increased cost to operate a company-provided fleet will cause reimbursement to re-emerge as a potent (but misguided) threat and one that will find a sympathetic ear with many in corporate management.
  •          Fuel prices will escalate again as regional economies re-emerge from the global downturn, and as this finite resource becomes further depleted. In addition, future geopolitical events will cause fuel prices to spike. Both the current and next U.S. administration promise to confront the Iranian nuclear development program, which shows no signs of being resolved diplomatically. All of which will make fuel a front-burner issue once again. One wildcard is possible legislation mandating corporate greenhouse gas reductions, which I foresee occurring, and its impact on fleet. Ultimately, I predict this will result in the widespread "hybridization" of the fleet vehicle population industry-wide. Although OEMs are making dramatic advances in increasing the efficiency of gasoline-powered engines, I am convinced that legislators will mandate the increased use of non-conventional engines, such as hybrids, in future greenhouse gas reduction legislation.
  •         In the next two to three years, the fleet resale market will re-emerge stronger than ever. If today's new-vehicle market generates the used vehicles of tomorrow, it appears there will be fewer used vehicles in the future. If new-vehicle sales decrease, especially over a multiyear period, it stands to reason there will be a corresponding decrease in the future number of used vehicles available in the wholesale market. I predict the wholesale inventory of used vehicles will be lower than buyer demand, especially in wake of the demographic changes of a growing national population and the large bubble of Millennials or Generation Y children who will reach driving age within this time frame. These are prime buyers of used vehicles. In terms of overall population, the Millennial generation is even larger than the Baby Boomer generation in terms of sheer numbers.
  •          There will be widespread dislocation of fleet managers – either for better or worse – due to ongoing corporate belt-tightening reorganizations. Strategic sourcing will further increase its influence in corporate fleet decisions, further changing the relationship between companies and their industry suppliers.
  •          There mostly likely will be significant change among OEM and fleet management company players in the coming years. Other OEMs – non-traditional players in the fleet market – will begin to play a more active and significant role in fleet. I also predict changes in the economic landscape will make the U.S. fleet market more appealing for entry by major European fleet management companies.
  •         Industry-wide cost pressures will cause the amount of fleet incentives offered by OEMs to diminish.
  •          Another wildcard is the impact of government intervention, especially in terms of tax policy to spur economic activity. Efforts to counteract the turmoil of today's economy may introduce new players to the fleet market with the enactment of business simulating tax regulations. For instance, the government could reinstitute the Investment Tax Credit, which, in the past, had a dramatic impact in enhancing the appeal of the fleet market to non-traditional fleet players.


Stronger but Different

The key takeaway is that we are on the cusp of permanent change in the fleet industry. However, change, in and of itself, is not bad. If given a choice, most of us would choose the fleet market of 2008 over the fleet market of 1973. The deep-seated concern about this impending change is fear of the unknown.

The fleet industry will survive this frightening and unprecedented economic crisis, and, if history is our teacher, it will emerge as a stronger, but much different industry.

Let me know what you think.



  1. 1. Al Cavalli [ November 18, 2008 @ 08:33AM ]

    Mike, your editorial pretty much tells it like it is and/or will be. The fleet industry will survive and hopefully stronger for it. However there are perhaps at least two points that should be emphasized:

    1. Companies shouldn't over react, the sky is not falling! Rather, they should streamline their product/service offerings, consolidate sales territories where possible, re-evaluate car assignments based on usage, reduce weights carried for better MPG, better control over personal usage, update personal use charges to conform to current conditions and review financing methods, safe driving and replacement programs and then buy the vehicle that can best perform the job it must do!! Not because of greenhouse gasses & global warming but because it's the vehicle you need to perform! Back in the 1970s several companies went over the edge replacing entire fleets with compacts that weren't up to the job and lost their shirts in the process!

    2. The vital necessity of establishing and maintaining a close working relationship between fleet and management to insure management's confidence in the fleet operation's ability and it's recommendations on how to deal with these situations.

    While conditions under which fleet management operates change, it's mission remains the same - to operate the fleet efficiently & economically by adapting, proactively, to market conditions as they emerge.

    I believe that the challenge which fleet managers face today, if dealt with promptly and in the company's best interest will only serve to re emphasize the value of professional fleet management as well as their standing in management's view.

  2. 2. Mark Francis [ November 18, 2008 @ 08:36AM ]

    The best forward-thinking and strategy-provoking article I’ve read in a long time. Thanks for the great read.

  3. 3. Ricky Beggs [ November 18, 2008 @ 01:41PM ]

    Mike, right on in your comparisons. The public and industry definitely panicked and over reacted in the type vehicle they purchased back in the 70s. We also had this overreaction when gas first hit $3.00 per gallon on the trucks and SUVs. We also had the significant loss in value of almost 30% on some vehicle types in a 3 month period. I guess history does repeat itself, we just don't always know when that might be. At least this time as gas prices have drastically declined to about $1.85 in our area and right at $2.00 nationwide, the reversal back to larger cars and trucks and SUVs hasn't happen. Now if we can just get the credit flowing, and a little consumer confidence facing a more positive level the industry will get back in the right direction. But it will take some time.

  4. 4. Shirley Collins [ November 19, 2008 @ 06:28AM ]

    What a great article capturing the historical, current, and future economic threats and challenges. It appears fleet industry has come full circle. Fleet continues to evolve and create challenges, most of which we cannot control. Yes, we have been here before, and there is value in reviewing the past when planning for the future. Great job!

  5. 5. Angela Gregorowicz [ November 19, 2008 @ 10:27AM ]

    Mike, great article! A great synopsis for those of us who were not in the industry in the 70's as well as future predictions.. I agree with Al that companies should provide the right tool for the job and not panic. Good information! Thank You.

  6. 6. Steve Kibler [ November 19, 2008 @ 10:40AM ]


    Possibly the most eye-opening article you have ever written. "Geopolitically" is the most globally applicable word for this situation I have ever read before.

    I was a working mechanic during the 1973 Arab oil embargo and recall the industry ramifications very well. As fleet managers, we shouldn't interpret this as a crisis, we should view this as an opportunity to get our houses in-order. CEO's and top management will be looking for proactive ways to immediately reduce fleet costs. We all have published strategies and resources available to us to blue-print ways to reorganize our fleets to be more lean, efficient and cost effective.

    The majority of public and private fleets are figuratively "operator driven" for peak needs and "what-if" situations, when they should be sized for standard needs only. Almost immediate options for "what-if" situations always exist but are inconvenient in the opinion of operators. This provides an opportunity to capitalize on probable eager support from top management to trim any waste and make our fleets a truly "managed cost."

  7. 7. Bob Cavalli [ November 19, 2008 @ 03:12PM ]

    Excellent editorial. You may also recall that in addition to the 1973 oil embargo, we had 'déjà vu all over again' in 1979, right down to rationing, "No Gas Today" signs, skyrocketing interest rates, and a panicked move to smaller cars. (In both instances, however, when prices moderated, demand for full-sized cars was rekindled. I can recall in the early 1980s, Pontiac was caught without a full-sized, rear wheel drive model after shutting down production of the Bonneville. They began to import the Pontiac Parisienne from Canada to sell in the U.S.)

    One thing that I think you cannot overemphasize; the negative effect of government intervention in markets. President Nixon imposed wage and price controls during the recession of 1973-1974, which caused artificial shortages in petroleum products. Google the "old vs. new oil" controls for more detail.

    I also like to emphasize that the oil shocks of the '70s differed from this year's price run-up in one key area: they were supply and regulation-driven, while this year's was demand driven.

    As for the conclusions, I do agree that the move to smaller cars and alternative fuels will happen, but not for the same reasons. It is not driven by markets; it is being driven by government. Financing will eventually come around again, provided markets are allowed to do what they do best...allocate will the used vehicle market.

    Well done.

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Mike Antich

Editor and Associate Publisher

Mike has covered fleet management and remarketing for more than 20 years and entered the Fleet Hall of Fame in 2010.

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