by Peter M. DeLorenzo Detroit. The drumbeats are growing louder in the media about the fact that GM's Chevrolet division could pass Ford as this country's number one automotive brand this year - after 17 years of running second. Thirty or forty years ago, this might have been a huge story, when legendary auto industry careers were won and lost by the movement of a decimal point in sales. Back then, the battles were knockdown, drag-out, heavyweight fights for the hearts and minds of the American car-buying public, with Ford and Chevy spurring their dealers on to greater and greater heights. Being "No. 1!" was a huge deal - and no expense was spared to make sure every man, woman and child in the country knew who was ahead at the end of the year. And even ad agencies got in on the act - making tidy little profits producing "crosstown chatter" ads in the local and national newspapers solely for the benefit of giving auto sales executives verbal ammunition for the friendly little gin games with their crosstown rivals on Saturdays at the country club. For the Motor City, and the sales chieftains at Ford and Chevrolet, those were indeed the "good old days" - and some actually believed they would never end. But now, it's almost a quaint footnote to an era that has long since passed. Because while Ford was beating on Chevy and Chevy was beating on Ford - Toyota, Honda, and Nissan waltzed right in and pulled the rug right out from under what once was referred to as the "Big Two." While Ford and Chevy battled each other down to the last detail in segments that were created by each other in alternating bouts of brilliance - e.g. Ford's sensational, record-breaking Mustang, answered two years later by the Chevy Camaro - they were ignoring the emergence of the Asian automakers. Let me restate that: they were not only ignoring the Asians, they were dismissing them as an insignificant threat that would never amount to anything. The rest, as we well know now, is history. I would like to think that a smarter, humbler Chevrolet would quietly mark their ascendance to being the new #1-selling car brand in the U.S. (with an ever-decreasing slice of the overall pie, it should be noted) with a series of low-key internal celebrations and dealer events, followed by a reemphasis on the job at hand - which is to keep the pedal to the metal and spur the new product offensive into ever-increasing sales. Aw, who am I kidding? That's notgonnahappen.com. Something tells me the gold "#1" lapel pins are being cranked out (after four designs were rejected, "refined" and fussed over, of course) by the hundreds of thousands in some little shop in China right now. And I would bet that the "We're #1" double-truck newspaper ads, magazine ads, billboards and television spots are already approved and in production. It's just the classic "Detroit Way." The people at the car companies in this town just can't help themselves, it seems. Have a few good quarters (look at the "buzz" surrounding Chrysler right now), or in this case, pass your longtime rival in sales after 17 years, and spontaneous "high-fiving" breaks out - to the detriment of everything else. But the reality of the situation suggests that Chevrolet and GM have absolutely nothing to celebrate. First of all, Ford has willingly walked away from thousands of rental fleet sales (a common practice used to inflate sales numbers) and is determined to sell more cars at retail, rather than giving thousands of cars away for nothing - a decided shift in their philosophy and one that is literally transforming the way Ford approaches the auto business. It is also a decision that has left the sales leadership door wide open for Chevrolet. The bigger issue for Chevrolet is that for all of the alleged momentum generated by its new "An American Revolution" ad campaign, the fact of the matter is that Chevrolet has been usurped and replaced by Toyota as "America's car company," an unofficial title that Chevrolet has touted throughout its recent history in advertising campaigns like "See the U.S.A in your Chevrolet," "Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Chevrolet," "The Heartbeat of America" and now with "An American Revolution." While Chevy was worried about Ford, and vice versa, Toyota was slowly, but surely wending its way into the hearts and minds of American consumers. Toyota's relentless sales event ads were more "Chevrolet" than Chevrolet's sales ads were even in its heyday. The tone, tempo and cadence of Toyota's advertising, combined with the near-flawless quality, reliability and execution of its products - has made Toyota the preferred choice of hundreds of thousands of American consumers. Honda and Nissan added fuel to the fire with compelling product offerings of their own. And the result? A generation of car buyers has walked away from American cars - unlikely to return anytime soon. The Ford vs. Chevy sales battle was a colorful part of Detroit's past, a time when the American car companies' unquestioned dominance on their home turf led to intense rivalries and created legendary figures who ruled their fiefdoms with iron fists. It was wild and it was fun, but that era is long gone. Now, Ford vs. Chevy is only significant to the people clinging to the notion that this traditional battle means something in the "Big Picture" of the global auto industry, and that the steadily eroding market share that's plaguing what's left of the "Big Two" will somehow stabilize and turn upward soon. That's simply wishful thinking. Outside of Detroit - "out there" in the real consumer world, where 60 percent of the people aren't driving vehicles obtained through car companies' discounts - the Ford vs. Chevy "battle" doesn't even register a blip on the radar screen. Not only are people "out there" in the real world uninterested in the whole question - they simply couldn't care less. And that's the real problem facing Ford and Chevrolet - and the only "battle" they should be concerned with. Thanks for listening, see you next Wednesday. Quote of the Week. Steve Lyons, the Ford Division president, had this to say to the Detroit News about the Chevy vs. Ford sales battle (and Ford's reluctance to prop up sales by dumping cars into rental car fleets, or playing the incentive game to the degree that GM is), "If that costs us leadership, I guess I will be willing to congratulate Chevrolet on becoming the largest seller of rental cars in the world...and they can have that title."