The story about Toyota topping General Motors in sales during the first quarter of 2007 is getting a lot of play in the media. Among some of the comments I have heard discussed is the failure of General Motors or the success of Toyota, American ingenuity versus Japanese quality, etc. The funny thing is that the debate seems to centered around the meme of 20 or 30 years ago, with the fundamental precept being American manufacturing versus Japanses manufacturing.
The problem with such a template is that it no longer holds true. Most, if not all, of the Toyota cars sold in the United States are actually make in the United States. General Motors is no more an "American" company that Toyota is a Japanese company. Sure, GM is based in Detroit and Toyota in Japan, but these are big, multi-national conglomerates whose vendors and suppliers have a global reach and scope. Parts from all over the globe are shipped to plants through out the nation and assembled into cars. Parts aren't made in those plants, they are simply assembly plants.
I think it generally true that General Motors, and Ford and Chrysler for that matter, suffered through a period where Japanese quality (read ease of care and length of service) far outstripped American made cars. But I don't that the reality matches the perception. Toyota, of course, does a lot of things very well, but I think American automakers have caught up. What hasn't caught up is the perception of quality and that is far more important.
For example, Toyota makes fine pick-up trucks and from a pure quality/cost perspective they might even be superior, but when it comes to pick-up trucks, people continue to buy Fords, in large numbers. The perception of the Ford pick-up truck is such that no matter how objectively superior Toyota pick-ups might be, subjectively people think "Ford" when you say pick-up truck.
The problem for Detroit, GM, Ford, and Chrysler, is not manufacturing now. Now the issue is one of perception and that may take another decade to win back.
However, while GM, Ford, and Daimler-Chrysler work on that perception gap, the real winner is the American car buyer and car enthusiast. As teh company attempt to make a better car and get people to believe they have a better car, the selection of automobiles will improve as will their objective quality.
The wonders of the open marketplace are truly amazing.