It’s official. Toyota (TM) has finally surpassed General Motors (GM) as the world’s biggest carmaker. The global sales battle has been neck-and-neck for a couple of years. But Toyota ended GM’s 77-year grip on the crown in 2008, according to numbers that came out on Jan. 21, and the Japanese juggernaut did it with authority, selling 8.9 million cars to GM’s 8.35 million. The margin of victory is two auto factories’ worth of production.
But the actual passing of the auto-sales crown is itself irrelevant. Like most pivotal moments in history, GM’s fall from the pinnacle has been a long time coming. Even at the turn of the millennium, when GM sold 8.5 million cars to Toyota’s 5.9 million, this day was all but certain. GM just made too many mistakes for too long. Management wasted too much money while Toyota was plowing billions into technology and vehicles. For decades, GM managers figured the customers would always come to them. Toyota knew it had to go to the customers.
Conventional wisdom says that the problems started with quality gaffes in the 1980s. But GM began the insidious process of creating its own demise long before then. The company’s U.S. market share peaked in 1962 at 52%. It has been downhill ever since.