Talking Points

A Japanese automaker beat Ford and GM for car sales. Nobody panicked.

For the first time ever, a foreign company has topped the charts in U.S. auto sales. Toyota sold more vehicles in America than any other company in 2021, ending a General Motors streak that went back at least 60 years.

There was a time when this news would have caused a cultural panic. "Japan Inc." was an American national obsession in the 1980s, with a flood of alarmist books, magazine articles, and xenophobic movies fretting over how the United States had lost its economic mojo to a country it had devastated at war just 40 years earlier. A lot of that anxiety was centered on the automotive industry: The 1986 comedy Gung Ho featured Michael Keaton as an autoworker experiencing culture clashes — and not a little bit of nationalist distress — when his plant is bought by Japanese outsiders to make Toyota-style cars. 

But Toyota's victory in 2021 hasn't appeared to cause much distress. Maybe that's because America's economic hawks are more focused on China these days, or perhaps because a lot of those Toyota cars are American-made: The company operates 10 plants in the United States and employs thousands of workers. 

What's really interesting now is how Toyota won the crown: By making cars.

Sounds obvious, right? But manufacturing vehicles in 2021 was really difficult, thanks to the supply chain crisis that resulted from the pandemic. GM and Ford both were forced to cut production during the year because they couldn't import enough semiconductor chips they needed to build their cars and trucks. Toyota didn't have that problem. As The New York Times points out, "Toyota had access to more chips because it set aside larger stockpiles of parts after an earthquake and tsunami in Japan knocked out production of several key components in 2011."

The "just in time" philosophy that guides much of the U.S. economy has been battered by the pandemic, proving brittle at the very moment robustness was needed. Toyota saved for a rainy day, and thus — unlike its competitors — had cars available for sale when consumers went shopping. Showing up is half the battle. GM and Ford seem to have learned the lesson: Both companies are now investing in an effort that could lead to U.S.-based production of semiconductor chips. We'll see if that means American companies can reclaim the lead in U.S. auto sales.