In their first crack at production planning for April-June, North American automakers are gearing up for a period record of 4,421,100 car and truck assemblies. That's 8.3% more than year-ago and 2.1% above the prior second-quarter record of 4,325,997 posted in 1996 — and output could go even higher still (see data p.4).

Continued robust light vehicle sales in February confounded industry planners who initially had expected the market to register a mid-winter dip following January's hot performance. Instead, production planners are looking for ways to add even more output in the April-June quarter.

Indeed, DaimlerChrysler Corp. officials as early as this week are preparing to review the company's North American second-quarter plans. Elimination of a bottleneck in the production of axles, especially those for the hot-selling Dodge Ram and Dakota pickups, may allow the company to increase output beyond the 9.5-hour daily shifts and work on three out of every four Saturdays at the Warren, MI, truck plant. Production may be boosted elsewhere in the company as well. Overall, Chrysler will build about 1% fewer vehicles in the second-quarter this year vs. year-ago, but that's largely due to the phase out of Neon production in Toluca, Mexico, to prepare for the '00 PT Cruiser. A slowdown in new vehicle sales in Mexico has prompted a cut in domestic-market output, as well.

Ford Motor Co. also says it is looking at ways to churn out even more cars and trucks in April-June after having already boosted March production plans by 27,000 units. That increase more than offsets the 17,100-unit February loss due to the power house explosion that closed Ford's Dearborn, MI, manufacturing complex at least a week in early February. Ford currently plans to build 1.2% more cars and trucks in the second quarter than it did in 1998.

General Motors Corp., hampered a year ago by strikes and new-model production launches, plans to assemble 25% more units in April-June this year compared to like-1998.

The industry's record-setting April-June plan follows hot on the heels of its any-quarter record performance in January-March. First-quarter output plans at present total 4,456,600 units, down some 29,600 from the level planned a month ago but still an all-time high. March output is set for a 2,900-unit increase from its month-ago level.

Production in January-June is now expected to reach a record 8,877,700 units, up 7.7% from year-ago. But some analysts at DCC, Ford and GM are questioning whether sales will continue at a high-enough level to support the present barn-burning output pace beyond the first-half. Still, they admit, they had expected sales already to have cooled.