GM Keeps Chin Up as Toyota Pulls Ahead

DETROIT, Michigan ~ General Motors took the news in its stride this week that it had lost its position as the world’s biggest automaker for the first time since 1931 to Japanese rival Toyota.

Tom Wilkinson, a GM spokesman, said the Detroit giant was well aware of the significance of the Toyota numbers but would remain focused on turning its fortunes around after steep financial and market share losses.

“It wasn’t news we wanted to hear. But it’s not going to distract us from our efforts to rebuild GM,” Wilkinson said.

“We had record sales in the first three months of 2007. Our sales were up in three of four regions (of the world,) while sales are improving at the retail level in the US.”

The Japanese automaker Toyota swept past General Motors in the global sales race, ending for now GM’s long reign as the world’s leading automaker.

Toyota reported on Tuesday it sold a record 2.348 million units in the first quarter, while GM sold 2.26 million units during the first three months of the year.

Toyota is enjoying strong sales, particularly in the United States, as higher prices at the pump boost demand for compact cars, small sport utility vehicles and hybrids which use a mix of electricity and gasoline.

GM had been the world’s top automaker since 1931, when it had surpassed the Ford Motor Co. in the midst of the Great Depression.

But the US giant lost US$2 billion for 2006, as its market share slipped in North America and the company took hefty restructuring charges. Its US market share fell to 24 percent in 2006 as Toyota’s shot up to 15.4 percent, according to industry data.

GM chairman and chief executive Richard Wagoner said in recent interviews he would not like to lose the number-one ranking to Toyota. On the other hand, he was prepared for a long struggle, he said.

Others offered a harsher response to the news.

“It’s a dark day,” said Gloria Jean Morgan, president of United Auto Workers Local 594, which represents workers at GM truck plant in Pontiac, Michigan. “I’m not very happy.”

Morgan added she hoped the reality of Toyota overtaking GM finally began to change attitudes in Washington on issues such as trade policies.

“I’m hoping this is going to be a dark day in Washington too,” she said.

Union officials have argued for years the US easygoing trade policies have allowed companies such as Toyota to enjoy the benefits from a both closed home market at home and a wide open market in the United States.

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