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, Automotive News

Call it the case of the phantom Cadillacs. Last week, red-faced Cadillac executives admitted they had inflated 1998 sales figures to beat arch-rival Lincoln.

General Motors Corp. acknowledged it improperly recorded 4,773 Cadillac sales in December. GM said it delivered those vehicles to dealerships, but the dealers did not sell them in December.

"We regret that the inflated delivery report caused the media, in particular, to believe that Cadillac dealers had indeed sold more vehicles . . . than Lincoln," said Roy Roberts, GM's VP-vehicle sales, service and marketing.

Using the corrected figures, Cadillac sold 182,570 new cars and trucks last year, compared with Lincoln's 187,121. It was the first time since 1939 that the Ford Motor Co. marque has beaten Cadillac, and it was the first time Lincoln ever has led the U.S. luxury segment.

In truth, the Cadillac/Lincoln controversy means less than it once did. Both have been eclipsed this year by Mercedes-Benz and Lexus, and BMW has edged out Lincoln.

However, the Cadillac-Lincoln rivalry still generates some heat. In the final months of 1998, media handicappers picked Lincoln as the likely winner. When yearend figures first showed that Cadillac had nosed out Lincoln, company executives gleefully handed out reproductions of the famous "Dewey beats Truman" newspaper headline.

Lincoln Mercury Co. President Mark Hutchins downplayed the controversy.

"This [apology] by Cadillac exemplifies the integrity we always said is the basis for a luxury brand," Mr. Hutchins said in a statement. "It is another example of what makes this rivalry so great."

GM has taken disciplinary action against unnamed employees. A spokesman declined to say whether anyone was fired, or whether Cadillac General Manager John Smith

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