Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) said that its U.S. sales rose 5% in November, a good result aided by a quirk of the calendar and strong demand over the Black Friday weekend.

The key numbers

MetricTotal SoldChange (YOY)
Total sales 197,574 5.2%
Retail sales 154,114 10%
Fleet sales 43,460 (9%)
Ford brand sales 188,145 4.6%
Ford cars 40,039 (12.9%)
Ford trucks 88,027 4.9%
Ford SUVs 60,079 20.2%
Lincoln brand sales 9,429 19.1%
Lincoln cars 4,049 42.3%
Lincoln SUVs 5,380 6.1%

Data source: Ford Motor Company.

About that quirk of the calendar: Last month had two more selling days than did November 2015, making for an especially favorable year-over-year comparison. "Selling days" exclude Sundays and other days when new-car dealers are typically closed. 

Ford's new-for-2017 Super Duty pickups are off to a strong and profitable start. Image source: Ford Motor Company.

What worked (and what didn't) for Ford in the U.S. last month

After a rough October, the Blue Oval fared much better in November, with strong results for three of Ford's biggest profit drivers: Pickups, SUVs, and the Lincoln luxury brand. 

Pickups: Sales of the F-Series pickup line, the most important single driver of Ford's profits, rose 10.6% to 72,089 on strong demand for the all-new 2017 Super Duty models. That outpaced both Fiat Chrysler Automobiles' (NYSE:FCAU) Ram pickup line (up 8%) and General Motors' (NYSE:GM) Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra siblings (up a combined 4.3%). 

Ford's U.S. sales chief, Mark LaNeve, said on Thursday that 71% of Super Duty sales in November were of higher-trim (Lariat and above) and higher-profit models. As it did when launching the then-new 2015 F-150, Ford has prioritized retail orders for high-specification trucks to maximize profitability while it works to build inventories. 

Better yet for Ford shareholders, that sales gain wasn't driven by incentives. Ford's incentives on the F-Series averaged $4,467 per truck last month, according to J.D. Power figures made available to The Motley Fool. That's significantly lower than the payouts made by GM ($5,753) and FCA ($6,062) on their full-size trucks last month, and unchanged from October. 

SUVs: As a group, sales of Ford-brand SUVs rose 20.2% last month. The Escape (up 10.6%), Edge (up 32.2%), Explorer (up 13.9%), and big Expedition (up 74.6%) all posted solid gains. LaNeve said that the group's gains were entirely driven by profitable retail sales, and that the group's sales pace is running close to Ford's all-time record levels of SUV sales, which was set in 2001. 

Sales of the midsize Lincoln MKX crossover continued to be very strong last month. Image source: Ford Motor Company. 

Lincoln: The brand's sales jumped 19%, far outpacing gains for the premium segment as a whole. The brand's biggest star may be the all-new Continental sedan, with 1,419 sold last month -- nearly triple the year-ago sales of its predecessor, the now-departed MKS. Sales of the brand's three highest-volume products were all up: the midsize MKZ sedan (up 9.3%), the compact MKC crossover SUV (up 14.4%) and the midsize MKX SUV (up 30.2%). 

LaNeve said that Lincoln's average transaction price was up about $1,600 from a year ago, versus a roughly $300 gain for the premium segment overall.

Analysis: Up-and-down months are typical late in the auto-sales cycle

The good news is that Ford's year-over-year gain kept pace with most of its five largest rivals -- only GM had a better month. 

CompanyNovember 2016 SalesChange (YOY)2016 Year-to-Date Sales Change (YOY)
General Motors 252,644 10.2% 2,723,667 (2.5%)
Ford 197,574 5.2%  2.374,843  0%
Toyota 197,645  4.3% 2,206,359 (2.4%)
FCA 160,827 (14%) 2,051,796 1%
Honda 122,924 6.5% 1,477,465 2.9%
Nissan 115,136 7.5% 1,411,680  4.9% 

Data sources: The automakers. Year-to-date sales are through Nov. 30, 2016.

Better yet, the mix of sales was a good one, with Ford's retail sales up 10% while its fleet sales were down 9%. (The fleet drop was expected: Ford's deliveries to rental-car fleets were front-loaded in 2016, meaning that most of them happened early in the year.) 

It's a big change from the dismal results that the Blue Oval posted in October. But investors should take both results with a grain of salt. While new-vehicle sales in the U.S. are still at extremely strong levels, auto sales are cyclical -- and the peak of this cycle was probably late in 2015

Up-and-down months are typical at this stage of the cycle, as automakers use incentives and other tools to try to generate incremental growth in a market that's roughly flat overall. 

Long story short: It was a good month for Ford in ways that bode well for its fourth-quarter profit. But investors shouldn't get too excited about either up or down months at this stage in the cycle. The thing to watch is Ford's incentive spending -- and the good news for profitability is that it's still relatively modest right now.