Toyota Motor sold more cars and trucks last year in the United States than General Motors, the first year in recorded history that a foreign automaker has outsold American manufacturers.
G.M., Ford Motor and other American automakers produced and sold fewer cars than they were hoping to in 2021 because they were hit hard by a global computer chip shortage. Toyota was less affected by the shortage for much of the year because it had accumulated a large stockpile of the parts.
The victory for Toyota came in a strange year for the industry. In addition to the chip shortage, the coronavirus pandemic and related supply-chain problems depressed sales while driving up prices of new and used cars, sometimes to dizzying heights. Auto manufacturers sold just under 15 million new vehicles in 2021, according to estimates by Cox Automotive, a firm that tracks the industry. That is 2.5 percent more than in 2020 but well short of the 17 million vehicles the industry typically sold before the pandemic took hold.
Toyota said on Tuesday that it sold 2.3 million trucks and cars in the United States, up about 10 percent from 2020. G.M. sold 2.2 million vehicles, down about 13 percent from a year earlier. Ford is expected to finish third when it releases its sales data on Wednesday.
“The dominance of the U.S. automakers of the U.S. market is just over,” said Erik Gordon, a business professor at the University of Michigan who follows the auto industry. “Toyota might not beat G.M. again this year, but the fact that they did it is symbolic of how the industry changed. No U.S. automaker can think of themselves as entitled to market share just because they’re American.”
The shortage of chips stems from the beginning of the pandemic when auto plants around the world closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. At the same time, sales of computers and other consumer electronics took off. When automakers resumed production they found fewer chips available to them.
Toyota had access to more chips available because it changed its strategy and set aside larger stockpiles of parts after an earthquake and tsunami in Japan knocked out production of several key components in 2011.
G.M. had topped the chart in auto sales for nearly a century, after speeding past Ford in the late 1920s and early ’30s.
Toyota started selling cars in the United States in 1965, and started production at its first U.S. plant in Georgetown, Ky., in 1988, building a reputation for quality as G.M., Ford and Chrysler struggled. Its growth also raised trade tensions between the United States and Japan and gave rise to popular fears that Japanese businesses would decimate American companies.
Toyota then expanded into luxury cars with its Lexus brand, and added the Toyota Tundra full-size pickup truck to compete in a segment dominated by the manufacturers based in and around Detroit. By the beginning of this century, the Toyota Camry was often the top-selling car in the country and the Japanese automaker soon passed Chrysler and Ford in annual sales.
Its image was further enhanced when it introduced the Prius hybrid as gasoline prices were rising and consumers were focusing more on fuel economy. The company still dominates sales of hybrid vehicles that couple gasoline engines with batteries and electric motors.
But Toyota has been slower to embrace fully electric vehicles, which could undercut its growth in the coming years. Sales of electric cars and trucks solely powered by batteries are growing fast around the world and Tesla leads that segment of the industry. The electric carmaker reported a nearly 90 percent jump in global sales in 2021 and its shares are worth vastly more than the stocks of Toyota, G.M., Ford, Volkswagen and other major automakers combined.
Toyota has also not been spared by the chip shortage. In recent months, the company has had to sharply slow production around the world because as it has exhausted its chip stockpile and had to wait for its suppliers to make more.