IT may make history of a kind but it comes in such depressing circumstances that no one is opening the bubbly. Toyota has just become the world's biggest carmaker for the first time, supplanting General Motors from the top spot it had occupied for an unbroken 77 years. Toyota had expected to be first to reach the summit last year but failed by a narrow margin, selling 9.366 million cars to GM's 9.369 million. This year, though, it must seem like an empty victory since it was achieved with sales of only 8.97 million cars, a drop of four million while GM sales fell by eleven million.

Yesterday both companies were downplaying the importance of the status change. Toyota's vice-president in the United States said, “Market share doesn't always pay the bills.” GM's chief sales analyst said, “I don't think being No 1 in global sales means much at all to the average consumer. I think it's an internal benchmark of our industry.” Neither company is in particularly good shape. GM is finalising its viability plan to show the US government that it deserves the $13.4 billion emergency loan it has been given to avert bankruptcy. Toyota has just put out a warning that it will record its first operating loss during the current financial year. It has laid off thousands of contract workers at its main plant near Nagoya in Japan and has been discussing an 11-day output holiday with its life-time workers.


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