Ford is still the UK's market leader, but some rivals are catching up fast - and others are receding. Roger Bell looks at 1997's winners and losers.

The way Ford tells it, you'd think that Britain's leading car maker hit the jackpot last year. For the 21st successive year Ford led the field, selling over 100,000 more cars than its nearest rival. It also fielded the three best-sellers - the Fiesta, Escort and Mondeo. What Ford doesn't say is that these successes took place against a background of steady decline.

Although total car registrations were up, Ford's sales and, more to the point, its market share, were down, according to the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders. What's more, both have been dwindling for years. In 1987 Ford sold more than 580,000 cars in the UK - nearly a third of the total. Last year's tally was 396,000, and its share 18.3 per cent. What's happening? Is mighty Ford, with its 1,000-strong dealer network and huge marketing muscle, on the ropes?

A look at its closest rivals, GM-owned Vauxhall and BMW-owned Rover, fails to provide answers. Vauxhall also saw a fall in market share - though at 14 per cent it is much the same as it was 10 years ago. Rover's sales and percentage were down. In the late Sixties, Rover (then BL) made nearly half all new cars sold in Britain. Now its slice of the cake is a mere 10 per cent.

Fine, says Rover spokesman Nick Argent. "We're no longer in the pile- 'em-high, sell-'em-cheap business." Realigned Rover has become less dependent on home sales and more reliant on foreign ones. However, Professor Garel Rhys, director of the Centre for Automotive Industry Research at Cardiff University's business school, sounds a cautionary note for Rover. "The most difficult manoeuvre to put into place in war is the orderly retreat, which can so easily become a rout."

He adds: "No manufacturer can expect to sell one car in three when there are so many good alternatives to choose from. Buyers have a greater choice than at any time since the Twenties. People throughout Europe are less chauvinistic than they were." The evidence? Fiat once had 60 per cent of the Italian market, now it's down to 38 per cent. VW has lost ground in Germany, and French giants have slipped in France, where imports are rising. The single market is becoming a reality.

Then there are the new players that have set up shop in Britain in the past decade - Chrysler, Daewoo, Kia, Proton, Ssangyong.

Tom Malcolm, Ford's manager of public affairs, also cites the company's withdrawal from the cut-throat rental market (the slack has been taken up by the French, Korean and Japanese) and a more liberal user-chooser approach by fleet buyers. "Ten years ago, many of them wouldn't allow Continental cars, far less Japanese ones." Times have changed.

Ford was not alone in losing market share last year. Others to do so (though sales may have been up) were Alfa Romeo, Citroen, Fiat, Nissan and Volkswagen.

Heading the winners was Renault, which sold 160,000 cars in Britain (compared with 79,000 in 1987). Renault (which doesn't make cars here) is now threatening to oust Peugeot (which does) from fourth place in the charts.

Other winners include Audi, BMW, Chrysler/Jeep, Daihatsu, Hyundai, Honda, Jaguar, Mercedes-Benz, Saab, Seat, Skoda, Subaru, Toyota and Volvo - though Volvo sold far fewer cars here last year than in 1987.

Professor Garel Rhys believes that Ford will do well to maintain 18 per cent of the market, though it is hard to see anyone eclipsing its lead. Much will depend on the Escort's replacement, due later this year.