HANOVER - Europe's truckmakers can't remember better times than the present.
At the biennial IAA truck show, smug, smiling managers and salesmen stood in front of their gigantic trucks and busses. The event drew 1,223 exhibitors from 39 countries, showing off more horsepower, less fuel consumption and less pollutants.
After a string of bad years, trucks are at last good business in Europe and North America, where European manufacturers have carved out a large slice of the booming market for themselves.
While the crisis in South America touches some, notably Volkswagen and Mercedes, the Asian crisis is not felt too badly by anyone except for Bosch, the biggest independent supplier in the world.
All major European truck companies and their suppliers have positive balance sheets for the half year.
But not all seven major European manufacturers showed up at Hanover. The medium and heavy truck division of Renault (RVI) and Fiat's Iveco protested in this way against Hanover monopolizing international truck shows in Europe.
'Apparently they are so satiated from their home markets that they don't look at Germany as a very interesting market,' said Daimler-Benz truck boss Kurt Lauk. 'Of course we find their disinterest very pleasing.'
From North America were Kenworth Trucks, and two Daimler-Benz brands: Freightliner and Sterling, the renamed heavy trucks operation that Daimler acquired from Ford. US maker Paccar was there through its Dutch subsidiary DAF, which showed some novelties.
What's in a price?
The smiles of satisfaction were not wiped off the faces even when Volvo announced a price cut of nearly 40 percent on its new FH heavy models and the FM medium trucks.
Volvo also added to the competition by raising its extended warranty from one to two years.
Two years ago, Daimler's Juergen Schrempp shocked the truck world at the 56th IAA with low prices on its then-new Actros heavy truck. That event more or less brought a 25 percent reduction in prices.
But truck people just laugh at sticker prices. MAN salesmen from Austria say they have not operated with listed prices for a long time. They say a truck is too individual for price lists.
Dominating the show, covering the floor space of two entire halls and overflowing with Setra busses into a third, was the Mercedes-Benz brand, with an emphasis on the new Atego medium truck of 8 to 15 tonnes gross weight.
Scania showed a suggestion that would revolutionize European transportation: a 28-meter-long combination of full-sized truck and long trailer.
Of the five axles, the first two and the last one are steerable. Thus, the rig can corner in the same space as a normal 16-meter semitrailer, but can transport 50 percent more load with 20 percent less fuel than using regular trucks. Today, such a combination is not allowed on open roads because of its size.
Not everybody going global
Next to prices, globalization was a dominant theme, and with it mergers.
When mergers are mentioned, everybody denies everything.
Volkswagen, which a few months ago was courting all the truckmakers, has cooled off.
'We definitely need and want the possibility of offering a complete range of vehicles, as we do in Brazil, where we manufacture heavy trucks,' said Bernd Wiedemann, president of VW Commercial Vehicles Division. 'But we are in no hurry to buy anybody. There are some beautiful brides to choose from, but in the present situation they would be very expensive brides to court.'
Scania's CEO Leif Oestling notes that Scania has a decades-long relationship with VW as its distributor in Sweden, but 'there have not been any discussions above that for a year.'
Volvo Trucks President Karl Trogen cannot or does not speak of any new talks with VW.
MAN's CEO Klaus Schubert is sure that his major equity holders will not sell out. MAN is now the third largest truck manufacturer in Europe, and its owners aspire to become No. 2. He said MAN will not do anything in North America in the near future, and the fickle market in South America is too expensive.
MAN is active though in Eastern Europe, especially Poland and Turkey.
'We will consider any cooperation under our lead, and we have some, but not a merger,' says Schubert.
MAN's big specialist trucks, for instance a five-axle truck for dike building in the Netherlands, make an interesting exhibit.
Daimler has already announced co-operation in Asia with Nissan Diesel, but Daimler's Kurt Lauk says there will be no merger soon.
'We have to get stronger on the Asian market, being a global player,' said Lauk. 'That is why we co-operate with Nissan Diesel. But of course the present crisis in Japan and Eastern Asia is a very difficult factor. And nobody knows when this crisis will end.
'Everybody in Japan says it will end in the autumn. But nobody says in which year's autumn.'