In the century since Henry Ford rolled out his first Model T -- the world's first mass-produced, affordable car -- in 1908, America has been the world's No. 1 auto market.
Nothing lasts forever.
Some day in the not-too-distant future the rise of China's middle class and its growing hunger for cars will push aside the U.S. auto market and grab that top spot.
That in and of itself makes sense given China's 1.3 billion-plus population -- a fifth of the world's total -- and robust economy, which is not growing by double-digits anymore but is still enviably healthy.
The Chinese auto market is going to explode exponentially over the next five to 10 years, said Mirko Mikelic, an analyst at Fifth Third Bank. They have an untapped consumer base that is constantly growing, so I don't think it would surprise most people that China is expected to surpass the United States in the next 10 years.
But China's rise to the top in numerical terms has some broader implications for the global auto sector.
As ever more people in the country seek to buy their first car, the expectation is that small, low-cost and rugged cars -- rugged because China's roads are still a work in progress, not unlike American roads of Ford Model T days -- will dominate the Chinese market.
U.S. automakers have not focused on building small cars over the years, which means more vehicles will be developed in Europe and Asia, continuing a long-term shift away from Detroit as a research and development center.
America's automakers, however, should benefit from their strong image in developing markets like China. And more than ever before, China's sales will mean car makers must reach out to far-flung world markets.
China's rise emphasizes the fact that the auto companies that are going to do well are the ones that are truly global, said IHS Global Insight analyst Aaron Bragman. If you don't have a global presence, you're going to miss out.
ONE UP, ONE DOWN
Unlike most other auto markets, China's has continued to post impressive growth this year.
On July 9, the China Association of Automobile Manufacturers said the country's passenger car sales jumped 47.7 percent in June to 872,900, lifted in part by government stimulus measures including a halving of the sales tax on small cars and subsidies for buyers in rural areas.
The association said total vehicle sales for 2009 would exceed 11 million units.
That growth dwarfs the United States, where auto sales fell 27.7 percent in June to 859,847 vehicles and analysts now forecast 2009 sales of around 10 million units.
Although at face value the numbers suggest China has already surpassed America as the world's No. 1 auto market, this is not an apples-to-apples comparison because the Chinese numbers include heavy trucks while the U.S. data does not.
According to Michael Robinet, vice president of global vehicle forecasting at CSM Worldwide, heavy trucks account for around a third of Chinese sales -- so a comparable number for 2009 would be around 8 million units.
But while U.S. auto sales are expected to recover with the economy -- to around 14 million units annually -- the market is largely saturated, with more cars than registered drivers.
China, however, has a long way yet to go.
In a July 6 research note, Credit Suisse analyst Hung Bin Toh wrote that by 2020 we expect car ownership to reach 148 cars per 1,000 residents, five times current levels.
According to JP Morgan, China is on the threshold of a fresh car sale bonanza driven by rising incomes in third-tier cities that could last a few years.
We believe this is the start of a third auto boom in China, JP Morgan managing director and China economist Frank Gong told reporters at a July 8 briefing in Hong Kong.
Unlike America, China has a vast pool of virgin demand for vehicles as more workers attain middle-class status, CSM's Robinet said.
THINK GLOBAL, THINK SMART
For automakers, China represents the best opportunity to expand sales rapidly without having to battle for market share as manufacturers do in Europe and the United States.
General Motors, for instance, has seen Buick sales in China outstrip U.S. sales two years running.
China is a good opportunity for GM, Bragman said. In countries like China, India and South America its brands are not damaged the way they are in the United States.
But while U.S. automakers can gain from the boom, most product development will be done in Europe and Asia -- for instance, Ford Motor Co's new small cars will be based on European platforms. Chrysler Group LLC, owned by a union-aligned trust, the U.S. and Canadian governments, and Italian automaker Fiat SpA, will not develop its own small cars.
Chrysler's cars will be developed in (Fiat's headquarters in) Turin, not (Chrysler's headquarters in) Auburn Hills, Robinet said.
As China's market grows, Edmonds.com Chief Executive Jeremy Anwyl said that the key to success for global automakers lies in leveraging common platforms and tailoring them to local tastes.
He said that Volkswagen AG provides a textbook example of a company that uses a few common platforms to produce a number of different -- and different-looking -- vehicles.
If you're not selling 5 million units a year, you're not going to be competitive, Anwyl said. The focus will be on efficiency, but if you are not smart about how you leverage your platforms it won't work.
(Additional reporting by Susan Fenton in Hong Kong and Kirby Chien in Beijing; Editing by Patrick Fitzgibbons and Matthew Lewis)