DETROIT - Volkswagen last year slipped from the No. 1 import sales slot it had held for two decades. Both Toyota and Datsun beat VW in car sales and in combined car and light-truck sales.
In cars, it was Toyota, 283,909; Datsun, 253,192; VW, 246,183. The car-truck tally was Toyota, 337,409; Datsun, 325,415; VW, 267,730.
It couldn't happen, but it did. Volkswagen had been dethroned. It was like Michael Jordan scoring three points in a playoff game or Babe Ruth going hitless in the World Series.
But a closer look at the sales charts shows it wasn't impossible after all. VW had been slipping; the Japanese had been rising. Their paths crossed in 1975, and the Japanese won the high road.
Actually, the defeat of Volkswagen was not nearly as important as the emergence of Japan as a major player in the U.S. market. From 1975 on, when you talked about imported cars you were talking about Japanese cars.
They started slowly. Toyota, with the Toyopet, and Nissan, with the Datsun, came to United States in 1958. By the end of 1959 Nissan had sold 1,342 new vehicles; Toyota had sold 288.
Toyota soon realized it did not have the right product for this market, so it withdrew in 1961 while its engineers designed a car for American tastes. In June 1965 it introduced the Toyota Corona, a sturdy, well-designed four-door with a sticker price of $1,714. A Ford Falcon four-door was $2,038.
Sales started slowly, with 15,814 in 1966. In 1975 Toyota sold 283,909 cars, and Datsun moved 253,192 to rank 1-2 in import sales.
By the early 1970s, Subaru (1968), Honda (1970) and Mazda (1970) were selling cars in the United States, and Chrysler Corp. was importing the Colt from Mitsubishi (1971). Total sales of Japanese cars were 806,778 in 1975, which was 9.5 percent of the U.S. car market.
Since then, Isuzu (1980), Mitsubishi (1982), Acura (1986), Suzuki (1988) and Lexus and Infiniti (both 1989) have joined the Japanese ranks here. Last year Japanese makes sold 4,045,139 new cars and light trucks, which was 23.85 percent of the record U.S. total of 16,958,347.
The Japanese could not have chosen a more opportune time than the mid-1970s for their big push in the U.S. auto market. The nation was in a recession, gasoline prices were high, and the Big 3 were in the midst of a price-raising binge. Japanese prices looked mighty good to American buyers.
And Japanese quality was a plus. The Big 3 were just about to enter their 'who-cares-about-cars-and-trucks?' phase. By 1985 they would spend billions to acquire banks, finance firms, mortgage houses, computer companies, defense contractors - even an aircraft maker. There was little money left for the core business. Quality suffered, and it has taken the domestic makers more than a decade to repair their reputations.