FTR reported preliminary Class 8 net orders for March at 22,800 units, slightly above expectations and much higher than a year ago. This marks the third consecutive month Class 8 orders have beat expectations.

March orders were basically flat month-to-month and up 41% year-to-year. The report also notes that backlogs are now close to where they were a year ago, and production rates are expected to increase significantly beginning with March totals. Orders are forecast to stay close to this level through May, similar in trend to 2013. Class 8 orders for the past six months now annualize to 243,000, consistent with expected future build rates.

Don Ake, vice president of commercial vehicles at FTR, called the current trend a “reserved, contained market upswing,” and added that it will make it easier for OEMs to increase builds gradually while maintaining price and overall market stability. “March orders are reflective of a more normal Class 8 market in a moderate, freight-driven upcycle,” Ake said. “Replacement cycles are now getting back into a more traditional pattern. This reflects growing fleet confidence as they see freight growth returning after a difficult 2016. OEMs are ramping up production in response. There is renewed optimism in the industry.”

A report issued by ACT Research mirrored FTR’s findings. According to ACT, preliminary data for Classes 5 through 8 for March indicated industry net orders rose to a 16-month high of 47,300 units – a 19% improvement compared to last March.

Looking at North American Class 8 net orders, ACT found a fall-off of 100 units from February to 23,100 units. However, a nominal, but positive, seasonal adjustment boosts the month’s order intake to 23,400 units, an increase of 2% from February’s adjusted total. “Against easy comps, March Class 8 orders were up 42% compared to March 2016,” said Kenny Vieth, ACT president and senior analyst. On a seasonally adjusted basis, orders were booked at a 267,000-unit in the first quarter, he said.

Preliminary ACT data also showed that North American Class 5-7 net orders rose to 24,200 units in March, an increase of 5% from February and 3% from a year ago. While those comparisons were modest, March’s preliminary order volume represented the biggest medium-duty order month in just over nine years, or since February 2008. “Since March is a seasonally strong order month, seasonal adjustment docks the month’s order volume to 22,200 units,” Vieth added. “Using this methodology, March orders failed to eclipse the January 2017 tally.”

Transportation analysts at market research firm Stifel say the recent resurgence in Class 8 demand "has been curious given continued weakness in industry fundamentals." In an email to investors, they note that volume and pricing have both disappointed so far this year in the truckload market. "For now, we expect orders to be roughly flat again in April, but we would not be surprised if orders fall off later in the year (perhaps as early as May) given recent demand appears to us to have been driven more by optimism than fundamentals."