They say that in Southern California, people are married to their cars.

If that’s indeed the case, there were fewer spousal bonds formed between human and auto in 2008 than in recent years in Ventura County, as a slumping economy impacted the car industry nationwide.

But its not just motorists and car dealers, who’ve been affected adversely by the bad news or by the lack of new cars hitting the road; business at the “port of entry” has taken a hit as well.

According to officials from the Oxnard Harbor District, import numbers on foreign cars landing on the docks of its Port of Hueneme this year were the lowest in five fiscal years.

“We are down some,” said Raymond Fosse, a member of the district’s board of commissioners. “We’re certainly not in a banner year.”

According to Will Berg, a spokesman for the district, there were roughly 232,000 cars that entered the Hueneme port at the close of the current fiscal year, which ended about six months ago.

The car count doesn’t bode well for the suffering auto industry on the whole, but especially for the harbor, whose port is one of the biggest gateways for the arrival of foreign auto imports from Europe and Asia along the Ventura coastline. While 200,000-plus has been the port’s median number for the past decade, the most recent fiscal tallies, said Berg, reflect both a decline for the last two years, and a trend that is expected to continue in that direction.

“Auto trade at the port has been a good trade for us,” he said, noting however, “It’s kind of ‘good news, bad news.’ ”

Ten years ago, the trade was on the upswing. In 1998-1999, according to Berg, the port received an estimated 148,000 autos; 1999-2000, 219,000; 2000-2001, 217,946; and in 2001-2002, 235,102 cars. 2002 into 2003 was an anomaly year, and the port saw a decrease in new cars, down to 222,545. But business compensated for that quickly, and in the next few calendar periods, auto imports skyrocketed: 243,000 in 2003-2004; 281,121 in 2004-2005; and 299,527, down to the last car, closing out 2006 as a watershed year for the harbor.

“It was a picture of a growing market,” Berg said. “2005-2006 was our best year.”

Since then, bad economics have done the auto trade no small favors, and everything from factory layoffs to exorbitant gas prices (which have only just seen some relief these past months) affected it in 2008. And let’s not forget the whole auto bailout fracas that became the national story of the year for the car industry.

The downward trend started early on the import/export front, yet to the credit of the Oxnard harbor, 2006 was a tough year to match. By 2007, Berg said, numbers lowered again, and the port ushered in only 254,000 autos, followed by the further decrease this past year.

But while stats have seen a downturn, he said, business has still been surprisingly strong at the harbor, and there’s been no backup or overflow of cars there. In relative terms, that’s because the port only floats in as many cars as there are requests by area car dealers, said Berg.

On that front, it’s the auto merchants who have suffered the most this year. New car sales have stagnated for several dealers along the Highway 101 corridor, which means fewer cars requested from overseas.

New car sales were down 22 percent this year at Steve Thomas BMW in Camarillo, according to the general manager there, Steve Thomas Jr.

However, there is something to be said about the turnover of used cars, where some dealers have had moderate success in 2008 selling autos already on land.

“The positive side is, we should finish up 92 percent [for] used cars,” says Thomas, noting that his stock of used lower-end models — the 3 or 5 Series from the German car manufacturer — were the biggest sellers of 2008, proving that even luxury car buyers have opted for frugality when looking to finance.

It could be one explanation for why at least one economy-car dealer fared better under the economic tumult in 2008 than its competitors.

“We’re actually doing very well,” states Tony Fiori, vice president of Vista Honda in Ventura. “Honda’s performing reasonably strong for the climate we’re in.”

According to Fiori, the Japanese car company might be doing even better business stateside if not for one common misconception among the local auto-buying public.

“Consumers think there’s no more money out there to get a loan,” he said. “If we can get the public to understand this isn’t an automotive-wide problem to get loans, I think we’d get a lot more traffic, and sales would increase more.

It’s brand-specific.”

Berg says the harbor district hopes to see car imports pick up again in the near future. Thankfully, there’ve been no layoffs at the port, he says, but that doesn’t mean the harbor isn’t susceptible to market swings in 2009 and beyond.

“There is a stress on the entire industry,” he said, “but all we can do is hope for the best.”  

paul@vcreporter.com