Toyota bumps Ford as No. 2 automaker

Lines between domestic, foreign car builders fade

January 24, 2004|By Stacey Hirsh and Lorraine Mirabella | Stacey Hirsh and Lorraine Mirabella,SUN STAFF

As a teen, Bud Plummer didn't even know what a foreign car was. He never saw them around his Baltimore neighborhood. His family drove only Fords and Chevys. And when it came time for him to buy a car, he considered nothing but an American automobile.

Now 61, Plummer, a local union president at the General Motors Corp. plant in southeast Baltimore, still buys American. "It's my livelihood," he says.

But such sentiments are waning: Toyota Motor Corp. of Japan has surpassed Ford Motor Co. as the world's second-largest car manufacturer, based on preliminary worldwide sales figures.

It is a shift once unfathomable to older consumers who recall American dominance in auto-making. But a generation's worth of changes in consumer taste, global trade and competitive forces continue to rewrite mid-20th-century notions.

General Motors remains the No. 1 automaker in the world, although some analysts predict it could also lose that mantle someday as new consumer markets in Asia emerge.

The "Big Three" - the nickname for GM, Ford and Chrysler - was once shorthand for U.S. leadership in manufacturing and industrial innovation.

That symbolism weakened years ago after Chrysler struggled and then merged with Daimler-Benz AG of Germany in 1998.

The long slide reached a new level yesterday with news that Toyota has apparently overtaken Ford in global sales. Ford announced this week that it sold 6.72 million vehicles in 2003, down from 6.97 million in 2002. Toyota's preliminary sales forecasts show global sales of 6.78 million vehicles in 2003. Its final sales figures will be released tomorrow.

The news would have evoked much hand-wringing a generation ago when "Buy American" was a patriotic rallying cry for organized labor and others. But the milestone didn't seem to evoke shock and dismay yesterday.

Many consumers are too young to remember the might of the "Big Three." Others aren't certain the definition is so relevant anymore as Toyota and other foreign makers now build some vehicles in America, American companies assemble cars overseas and some models share parts from domestic and foreign makers.

"To most kids of today, Toyota, Honda and Nissan are just as American as Ford, Chevrolet and Dodge," said Haig Stoddard, an analyst for Wardsau, an automotive information company in Southfield, Mich. "Where the corporate headquarters are doesn't mean anything to most people."

News that 67-year-old Toyota's preliminary sales surpassed those of 100-year-old Ford came as no surprise to industry experts. Toyota's overtaking of Ford is more evolution than revolution, they said.

"It kind of summarizes what's been going on for the last 25 years," said Michael Flynn, director of the University of Michigan's office for the study of automotive transportation.

American automakers have been losing strength around the globe and at home. They controlled 63 percent of the domestic auto market in 2002, down from 74 percent in 1995, according to Plunkett Research Ltd., a market research firm in Houston.

A spokesman for Ford, now led by founder Henry Ford's great-grandson William Clay Ford Jr., dismissed the notion that slipping from No. 2 was symbolic of larger issues.

"Our focus isn't on size. Our focus is on being the industry's best, and we're focused on producing great cars and great trucks for consumers," said Oscar Suris of Ford, in Dearborn, Mich. "The focus is on being the best in this business, and there's lots of ways to measure that."

Pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles were a saving grace for American automakers in the 1990s, experts said, although the Japanese have made inroads in those markets as well in recent years. And Toyota's Camry was reported as the best-selling car in the United States last year for the second year in a row and the sixth time in the past seven years.

Experts say Ford's drop to third place from second is hard evidence that Japanese market dominance continues to steam along, decades after the foreign makers' attention to quality control began to steal share from the U.S. companies.

American automakers are further hurt that younger generations are less likely to care about showing loyalty to them, analysts said. AAA Mid-Atlantic reports that it still gets "hate mail" from some members who are disturbed when the automobile association favorably reviews an import car in its newsletter, but that notion is waning.

"The kind of loyalty that they imagine is obviously passed, and on some cosmic level, they're not particularly loyal to American workers," said Jamie Kitman, New York bureau chief for Automobile Magazine. "They're trying to outsource everything to China and Mexico ... so why should the American consumers be loyal to them?

"If you create a society that is all about the short-term, bottom line, well, that's the way everybody behaves. If you don't give any loyalty, you don't get any. It's all about the deal, for everybody," he said.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.