Video: GM's run is officially over

msnbc.com news services
updated 1/21/2009 11:50:28 AM ET 2009-01-21T16:50:28

General Motors sold fewer cars globally than Toyota last year, as the Japanese automaker passed its Detroit rival for the first time, bringing to an end GM’s 77-year run as the world’s largest automaker.

GM, now struggling to restructure under a $13.4 billion U.S. government bailout, had held the title as the global auto industry leader for over seven decades and used the line in its marketing.

But for 2008, Detroit-based GM said its sales decreased to 8.35 million vehicles, pressured by tightening credit and a slowdown that began in the United States and spread to emerging markets where GM has been stronger.

Earlier this week, Toyota said its global sales for 2008 had slipped 4 percent to 8.97 million vehicles as it also battled a costly slowdown in key markets.

Both GM and Toyota downplayed the significance of the shift in market leadership.

“Share doesn’t always pay the bills,” Don Esmond, Toyota’s senior vice president for U.S. operations, said at an industry conference when asked about Toyota capturing the No. 1 spot.

GM’s sales analyst Mike DiGiovanni said 2009 was starting on a weak note in the U.S. market, the world’s single largest.

With sales to car rental agencies down sharply, the U.S. auto market could slip below 10 million units on an annualized basis for January, DiGiovanni said.

That would be down from 10.3 million units in December and less than the 10.5 million unit level that GM is targeting as the basis of its revised turnaround plan to be submitted to U.S. officials next month.

DiGiovanni said GM expected that fiscal stimulus expected from the United States, China and other governments would boost demand in the second half of the year.

“We feel we’ve weathered one hell of a storm, and we’re cautiously optimistic as we move into ’09 that we can stabilize and grow again,” he said.

GM and Toyota ended 2007 with a virtual tie.

GM sold 9.369 million vehicles, including those sold through SAIC-GM-Wuling, a commercial vehicle joint-venture in China in which the U.S. automaker has a minority stake.

Toyota sold 9.366 million vehicles for 2007.

GM Chief Executive Rick Wagoner had vowed to defend the company’s global sales leadership, saying the title was a point of pride for the automaker.

But with GM reliant on federal funding to avoid bankruptcy, GM Chief Operating Officer Fritz Henderson said late Tuesday that the automaker had been forced to focus on other measures of the success of its turnaround.

“I actually noticed that they passed us in market capitalization, profitability and cash flow long ago,” Henderson said of Toyota.

More on General Motors   |  automotive industry

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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