'Chasing GM' takes on new meaning

John K. Teahen Jr. is the senior editor of Automotive News.
Since the late 1920s, the name of the game in auto sales has been "Chasing GM." It's been a pretty frustrating exercise; no rival has even come close to the General. For three-quarters of a century, Ford was No. 2.

GM first took the lead in 1927. Ford regained the top spot in 1929-30, and it has been GM since 1931.

GM's lead grew to a million units within a decade and to 2 million in the 1960s. In 1978 and 1979, GM was more than 3 million sales ahead of Ford.

Those were the old days, when it seemed GM could do no wrong. They gave way to modern times, when it seemed that GM could do nothing right. Nevertheless, the General remained atop the U.S. sales charts.

But its big lead has withered away. It fell to 737,000 in 2008, and by then there was a new No. 2: Toyota. In 2009, Toyota trailed GM by only 302,000 sales, and the speculators had a ball. Soon, they intoned, there will be a new leader in the United States. It made sense. After all, Toyota was the worldwide sales leader; today, the world -- tomorrow, the United States.

But Toyota's quality took a tumble, and gas pedals stuck. Ford moved back into second place, ahead of Toyota.

But there's no talk of a new leader this time. GM was 77,000 units ahead of Ford through May and seems destined to stay there, although this may well be the closest race since GM grabbed the lead for keeps back in 1931.