General Motors Corp. Chairman Roger B. Smith said today that his company is making progress in discussions with Toyota Motor Co. of Japan on a joint business venture. But he said GM stockholders probably will have to wait until fall for a decision "one way or the other" on whether a deal can be made.
GM officials say the two companies are discussing production of a front-wheel-drive subcompact for sale in this country and abroad, although Smith wouldn't confirm that yesterday. "We have agreed to some items, but it would be premature at this point to say" an overall "agreement has been reached," Smith told reporters after presiding over GM's 74th annual stockholders meeting here.
"We can come to some decision with Toyota, one way or the other, by fall," Smith said.
The GM chairman declined to say what items have been agreed to in the intermittent talks with Toyota that began last month. But he suggested that any joint manufacturing enterprise will be based in one of two currently closed GM plants in Fremont and Southgate, Calif.
"Obviously, they would be the first plants we would look at," Smith said.
The Fremont plant built intermediate front-wheel-drive cars, and the Southgate plant produced the smallest GM front-wheel-drive vehicles, the J cars. Both plants were shut down this year because of falling sales volumes.
Smith and GM President F. James McDonald said GM is committed to establishing a firmer foothold in the small-car market, particularly overseas where the company has been doing its best business. Besides Toyota, GM also has been holding business discussions with Isuzu and Suzuki with an eye toward achieving that goal.
GM's 1981 U.S. car and truck sales were down 6 percent from 1980, and its worldwide sales of 6.8 million cars and trucks last year marked a 9 percent decline from 1980 sales.
Although Smith and McDonald expressed optimism today that GM will improve its domestic and international car sales during 1982 and in succeeding years, McDonald said the 1980s growth in North American car sales for all automakers "won't match the '70s.
"Clearly, the greatest growth potential lies beyond our shores," McDonald said.
This year's formal business meeting, lasting four hours, attracted 675 stockholders compared with 875 who attended the 1981 session. However, GM officials departed from tradition by holding a follow-up session--dubbed a "stockholders' forum"--20 miles away at the company's technical research center in Warren, Mich.
McDonald said the forum was held to accommodate stockholders "who are reluctant to make their voices heard" in the formal business session.
Several stockholders launched scathing attacks on Smith in particular, and on the GM board in general, during the first meeting. They accused GM of undermining community stability by bulldozing much of the nearby Poletown area to make way for a new GM assembly plant. Smith denied the charge, which was made repeatedly in the first meeting. He then cut off Poletown-related questions, and later threatened to eject a stockholder who would not abide by his edict.