With new-vehicle sales zipping along at a record clip and a United Auto Workers union contract showdown looming, North American automakers last week concluded their latest round of scheduling meetings with the most robust third-quarter output plan in history.

Despite vacation shutdowns at Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp., and model changeover downtime for other producers, a record-breaking 4,018,900 cars and trucks are slated for completion in North American plants in July-September. That's up 14.5% from the strike-crippled year-ago tally of 3,509,500 units when most GM plants in the U.S. and Canada were closed by a UAW strike against key parts plants. Yet compared to 1997 when the industry posted its second best ever July-September output of 3,593,575 units, the current program is up more than 425,000 units or 11.8%.

Vehicle output in all three countries is slated at a record level for the third quarter. Planned U.S. production of 2,968,000 units is 8.3% ahead of the second-best 2,738,636 vehicle build in July-September 1996 and 11.3% ahead of like-1998's 2,667,200 units. The Canadian output schedule calls for completion of 658,200 vehicles in the quarter, up 20% from third-quarter 1997's 548,477 units, while production in Mexico (which was little impacted by the GM strike) is pegged at 392,700 units, up 14.7% from the prior third-quarter record of 342,498 posted a year ago.

Consumers' seemingly insatiable demand for light trucks largely is driving the industry's record third-quarter plan. Truck assemblies are pegged at an all-time high for the quarter at 2,096,800, some 434,000 units or 26.5% ahead of July-September 1998's abbreviated total. Compared to 1997, when the industry posted its second-best third-quarter finish of 175,547, the current-quarter plan is up 19.6%. Trucks accounted for 52.2% of planned third-quarter output this year, up from 47.4% in like 1998.

Car production for the period this year totals 1,992,100 units, 4.1% more than in the same quarter year-ago, but 9.1% less than the 15-year high of 2,115,306 units built in July-September 1985, when they accounted for 67% of third-quarter output vs. just 33% for trucks.

Overall North American vehicle output in the first nine months of 1999 is pegged at a record 13,130,000 units, up 11.7% from year-ago. Truck output is aimed at a record 6,920,700 units, up 17.7% from the January-September 1998 count, while cars are scheduled for a 5.8% increase. U.S. output for the nine-month period this year is up 10.3% from year-ago, Canada is up 21.6% and Mexico, 6.4%.