Ford Motor Company (F 0.41%) said that it sold more vehicles in the U.S. than anyone else in September, despite a nearly 18% decline from a year ago, as the global semiconductor shortage continued to wreak havoc with automakers' production plans around the world.

While Ford's September sales compared well with rivals, the company's third-quarter sales decline was worse than most. Its U.S. sales in the third quarter were down 27.6% from a year ago, and down 31.5% from the third quarter of 2019, before the pandemic. 

But with more than 156,000 vehicles sold in September, Ford was able to surpass runner-up Toyota's (TM 0.99%) total of just under 153,000, suggesting that Ford's supply chain difficulties may finally be easing. 

What does all this mean for investors? Let's take a closer look.

What Ford said about its September and Q3 sales

  • "Improvements in production and inventory" that Ford was able to make in August helped it to a 34% month-over-month increase in retail sales in September. (But note that Ford's retail sales were still down almost 21% from September of 2020.) 
  • Efforts to encourage customers to special-order their vehicles are paying off: 31% of the Blue Oval's September retail deliveries were from customer orders placed earlier in the year.
  • Ford's F-Series pickups had their best month since the chip shortage began, with just over 63,000 delivered. 
  • Deliveries of the new small Maverick pickup began in late September, with 506 sold by the end of the month. 

There's one more notable point: Ford's dealer inventories are still thin, but improving. As of Oct. 1, it had about 236,000 vehicles in inventory. That's just a 38-day supply, well below the 60- to 70-day supply that Ford has historically preferred. But it's up from about 215,000 at the beginning of September.

A 2021 Ford F-150, a full-size pickup truck.

Ford's hugely profitable F-Series trucks had a strong month in September. Is Ford finally on the road to recovery from COVID and the chip shortage? Image source: Ford Motor Company.

How Ford's Q3 results compare with rivals'

September was a relatively good month for Ford, but the third quarter was a tough one. The company was hit earlier and harder by the chip shortage than many rivals, a result of a fire at a key supplier's factory in February. It has been forced to cut weeks of production of many models, including the all-important F-Series pickups, throughout the year while other automakers, including Toyota (TM 0.99%), were less affected. 

While September's results suggest that Ford's supply issues are easing (and that some rivals' may be worsening), July and August were tough ones for the Blue Oval. The upshot: It ranked just fourth in sales in the U.S. for the quarter.

Metric Q3 2021 Q3 2020 Change (Decline)
Toyota  566,005 558,449 1.4%
General Motors  443,117 662,143 (33.1%)
Stellantis  412,917 508,751 (18.8%)
Ford 397,644 549,134 (27.6%)
Hyundai-Kia 370,536 339,586 9.1%
Honda  345,914 388,404 (10.9%)
Nissan  198,955 221,150 (10%)

Data source: The automakers, Automotive News.

What it means for Ford investors

Back in July, Ford boosted its profit guidance for the full year. CFO John Lawler told auto investors at the time that the company expected its sales in the second half of 2021 to be about 30% higher than in the first half, as improved chip supplies would allow it to restock depleted dealer inventories.

We might have seen the beginning of that in September, though I have a sense that chip supplies might not be improving as quickly as Lawler and Ford might have expected a few months ago. I'm a Ford investor myself, and I'd say I'm feeling cautiously optimistic. But I think we all need to stay cautious until we hear from Lawler again during Ford's third-quarter earnings call on Oct. 27.