The Great Race.
It wasn't from New York to Boston on the muddy roads of the 1900s.
It wasn't from Seattle to Schenectady after roads had improved a bit in the 1920s.
It wasn't from Los Angeles to Baltimore, virtually nonstop on today's interstates.
The Great Race began in 1912. It's still going on, and it will continue as long as Fords and Chevrolets are built. It begins on Jan. 1 each year, and it winds up the following Dec. 31.
It's the race for sales - the race for bragging rights; the race for the privilege of pointing your index finger skyward and yelling, proudly, "We're No. 1!"
And, of course, for the big pot of money that goes to the winner.
Henry Ford and Louis Chevrolet probably knew each other, since each of them built and drove race cars in the early days. Ford turned to manufacturing and became the ultimate household name in the world of automobiles. Chevrolet was primarily a driver, and his name lives because Billy Durant chose it as the label for the family-oriented vehicle that was to anchor his General Motors.
Lopsided at first
For its first dozen years or so, The Great Race was neither great nor a race. It was a bit like the Kentucky Derby winner challenging a plow horse. In 1912, Chevy's first year, the score was Ford, 89,455; Chevrolet, 2,999.
And it stayed lopsided for a long time: In 1916: Ford, 585,597 cars and trucks; Chevy, 61,838. In 1920: Ford, 463,451; Chevrolet, 143,176. Still an edge of more than 3-to-1 for Ford.
But change was in the works, in the person of William "Big Bill" Knudsen, the manufacturing boss who turned out all those Model T's for Henry Ford.
In April 1921, Knudsen quit Ford Motor Co., and in February 1922 he landed at GM at the behest of Alfred Sloan. A month later, Knudsen was Chevy's vice president of operations, and on Jan. 15, 1924, he became Chevrolet president and general manager.
Bill Knudsen did not like second place. He was not happy playing second fiddle to his former employer.
The 'vun for vun' challenge
Soon after he was named president, Knudsen and Dick Grant, GM's salesman nonpareil, attended a dealer meeting in Chicago. About 2,000 dealers and salesmen had gathered at the Palmer House to hear Grant (always a treat) and to meet the new boss. Grant told Knudsen he should say a few words.
When his turn came, Knudsen faced the crowd for a few moments. Then he raised his arms, with his index fingers pointing upward, and shouted, "I want one for one," meaning parity with Ford. But Knudsen was excited and his thick Danish accent betrayed him. His challenge came out, "Ay vant vun for vun!"
Norman Beasley, a Knudsen biographer, recounts: "Only a comparative few understood what he said. Those few passed the words along. Within two or three minutes, Chevrolet salesmen were on their feet laughing and cheering. It was the first open challenge to Ford's supremacy in the low-priced field. From Chicago, the 'vun for vun' challenge swept throughout the Chevrolet organization."
Sure, it was premature. In 1923, Ford had outsold Chevrolet by a ratio of 4-to-1. But was it a sign of things to come?
Chevrolet didn't outsell Ford until 1927, and - as with Roger Maris' 61 home runs in 1961 - there was an asterisk in the record book. Ford was out of action for much of 1927, changing over to the Model A.
The Model A was one of Edsel Ford's few victories over his father. If Henry had had his way, Ford Motor Co. would still have been producing the Model T. But Edsel convinced his father that a changing industry called for changing products.
Chevy won again in 1928, but Ford, with the Model A in full swing, ruled the roost in 1929 and 1930. Then Chevrolet was on top for four years before Ford broke through in 1935.
A remarkable run
In 1936, Chevrolet began a remarkable string of victories. From 1936 through 1986 (omitting World War II), Chevy outsold Ford 44 times in 47 years. Ford's only triumphs were in 1959 and 1970, when Chevy and GM were hobbled by UAW strikes, and in 1957 when Ford's cars were redesigned and Chevrolet elected to squeeze another year from its 1955-56 styling.
Oddly, the 1957 Chevrolet has become a classic; the 1957 Ford is just a 46-year-old car.
There were some memorable battles along the way. Chevy won the car race by only 2,107 sales in 1937 and by 4,378 in 1934.
But the one that auto veterans remember best is the 1954 car donnybrook. Going into the final days of the year, the car race was too close to call. There were tall tales, never proved, that factory field reps delivered lists of engine numbers to their dealers and instructed them, "Register these now as sales. We'll send you the cars later."
Automotive News has questioned some 1954 field reps who rose to higher jobs in their sales organizations. Did it happen or didn't it? Every sales exec drew himself up to his full height, placed a hand over his heart and swore that his company would never resort to such dastardly tactics.
Ford to the fore
In those days the factories did not issue sales reports, so there was no sales winner until R.L. Polk & Co. anointed one in mid-February. The result: Chevrolet, 1,417,453 cars; Ford,1,400,440. Chevy won by 17,013 in a year that brought sales of more than 2.8 million Chevrolet and Ford cars.
Chevy also beat Ford in truck sales in 1954, but in those days, when the industry talked about sales supremacy, it meant car sales supremacy.
The long Chevy reign also included Ford's 1956 campaign to promote safety features. Instead of vroom-vroom and pretty-pretty, Ford pitched safety belts, deep-dish steering wheel, padded visors and padded instrument panel. Chevrolet stuck to the tried and true attributes of its car and gave Ford a frightful drubbing.
In 1955, when Ford and Chevrolet each had brand new cars, Chevrolet beat Ford by 67,405 sales. In 1956, when Ford stressed safety, Chevy's margin was 190,056.
But it proved a point: Safety didn't sell. That was the auto industry's battle cry in Washington for a quarter century. For everyone except Volvo. Volvo "sold" safety and did rather well, thank you.
The Chevrolet streak extended to another Knudsen: Bunkie, Bill's son, presided over Chevrolet from 1961 to 1965, and his term included the division's first 2 million-car year (1962).
Chevrolet's long, long run ended in 1986, and sales supremacy has belonged to Ford ever since. Ford moved to the top of the chart in 1987, midway in the decade in which GM abandoned the auto industry to go big into data-processing and defense companies.
GM made a lot of money during that period, but quality plunged, all of its brands began to look alike, and customers declared in loud voices, "No more GM cars for me." It has taken GM a dozen years to recover.
Now GM and Chevy are getting it together, and Ford is stumbling. Ford Motor brass must be looking at their arch rival and wondering, "Will it take us a decade to come back?"
But despite current difficulties, Ford has one big plus: Chevrolet has not been able to wrest the sales lead from its longtime rival.
For Ford Motor Co., 2001 was an absolutely awful year. The company lost $5.45 billion; its bonds fell to "junk" rating, and its common stock dipped below $10 a share. But Ford beat Chevy by 613,000 sales. Last year was a bit better for the company but not as good on the sales side. Still, Ford topped Chevrolet by nearly 357,000 units.
Put 2003 in the Ford column, too. It led Chevrolet by 161,000 sales on May 1.
So far the results of The Great Race have been a bit like a sandwich, with Ford as the bread at both ends and Chevrolet as the filling in the middle.
The Great Race has been run 87 times since 1912. Chevrolet has won 50 times, Ford, 37, with the World War II years declared "no contest."
Any bets on the next 87?