FLINT, Mich. — General Motors has a shot at being No. 1 again.
The resurgent automaker reported Monday that its worldwide sales last year came within 30,000 of beating those of Japanese rival Toyota, which took a big hit because of safety recalls. Now GM is outselling Toyota in fast-growing China, and its U.S. business is bouncing back.
GM is hiring, producing more vehicles and basking in a better reputation for quality. It expects to sell even more cars and trucks this year, putting it within reach of the title of biggest in the world — an honor it held for 76 years before losing it in 2008.
Dana Rouse, a union official at the pickup truck factory in Flint, called overtaking Toyota the Heisman Trophy of the auto business.
"We're going to take Toyota on, and the people in Flint are going to be a part of that," he said.
GM executives say they are focused on keeping customers happy, not on the title. They remember the company's disastrous recent history, when it sold cars at a loss just to hold on to market share.
"Satisfying and retaining our customers and delivering world-class products is pretty much the fundamental business that we're in," GM North America president Mark Reuss said Monday at the factory.
Toyota is still wounded from recalls of more than 10 million vehicles, mainly to fix floor mats and gas pedals that could make cars speed out of control. It was the only major automaker with lower U.S. sales in December, and it's uncertain when sales will recover.
Toyota said it was not concerned about beating GM.
Toyota sold 8.42 million vehicles worldwide in 2010, barely ahead of GM's 8.39 million. GM made an impressive turnaround from 2009, when it was forced to take nearly $50 billion in government help and go through bankruptcy.
GM's global sales grew by a dramatic 12 percent last year, and it turned a $4.2 billion profit in the first nine months of the year. Financial results for the final three months of 2010 aren't in yet, but more profit is expected.
Along the way, GM pulled off an initial public stock offering and added 9,000 U.S. workers. GM's sales in China were so strong that they outpaced U.S. sales for the first time in the company's 102-year history.
On Monday, GM recalled 750 laid-off workers for a third shift at the Flint plant because of demand for heavy-duty pickups. The trucks are used mainly for construction, plowing snow and other work, and the increased demand is a sign of economic recovery.