In July, when Ford Motor Co. and General Motors reported surprisingly strong profits for the second quarter — Ford after seven straight quarterly losses and GM after eking out small profits in the previous two quarters — the news gave a badly needed shot of feel-good to the ailing domestic automakers and their troubled hometown.
"Turnaround" quickly became the favorite word of Detroit headline writers and talk-show hosts. Hope, buoyant as the Goodyear blimp, hung in the air.
Bet that Detroit wasn't alone in relishing the news, though. Bet that it brought smiles, maybe even a touch of relief, to senior executives at the headquarters of Toyota Motor Corp. in Japan, and in Torrance, Calif., home of the U.S. sales arm.
Why would competitor Toyota root for GM or Ford?
Because now that Toyota has passed GM as the top-selling automaker worldwide and is on track to pass Ford as the No. 2 seller in the United Sates this year, the Japanese automaker will walk through fire to avoid any impression that it's pushing the U.S. companies over a cliff.
Compete? Absolutely. Win? You bet. But don't run up the score on their home court, or we might get our butts kicked in the parking lot.
"The fear of backlash is always there for us — always," Yoshimi Inaba, 61, a retired Toyota vice chairman who headed Toyota's U.S. sales arm from 1999 to 2003, acknowledged in a July interview.
"We see the problems of the Detroit 3 automakers, having hard times, and that is a concern to us. We know their problems could fuel a change in public sentiment, protectionism. We are always conscious of that possibility, and whenever we make a decision, we have that in mind."