DETROIT – Ford dealerships now outnumber Chevrolet stores for the first time in years.

“That’s really new,” says John Frith, vice president of Urban Science, an automotive consultancy. “It’s the first time I can remember that happening.”

Ford stores stood at 3,131 at the end of 2010, down 62 from the prior year. That compares with 3,084 Chevrolet sales points, down 372.

Chevrolet brand lost the store lead because of General Motors’ widespread dealership eliminations of the last two years. Those occurred after the auto maker, along with Chrysler, declared bankruptcy in 2009.

In the age of lean dealership counts, the question arises: Does Ford’s lead mean it has too many dealerships?

“I wouldn’t say Ford has too many,” Frith says, adding that the auto maker continues to assess dealership numbers and throughput, or sales per store.

The Ford-Chevy rivalry has dominated the American landscape since the early 20th century. In 1912, the era of the Model T, the U.S. had 12,000 Ford dealerships, with many small-town stores pumping gas on the side.

Currently on a roll, the Ford Div. sold 1,726,349 vehicles last year, according to Ward’s data. Chevrolet, recovering from GM going into shock two years ago, sold 1,563,963 in 2010.

With all of their brands combined, GM outsold Ford 2.2 million units to 1.9 million last year.

Industrywide, annual throughput averaged 656 in 2010, up from a 17-year low of 564 units in 2009.

Urban Science projects throughput this year at 745, based on a national dealership count of about 17,660 and projected sales of 12.9 million light vehicles. That compares with 11.5 million units last year.

“We are seeing throughput rising dramatically since the low point of 2009,” says Randy Berlin, Urban Science’s director-global account. “We’re getting close to the levels we were seeing in 16 million and 17 million sales years when there were more dealers.”

Profits so far this year range from 38% to 129% for dealers, who streamlined their operations during the tough years of 2008 and 2009 and now are enjoying a sales recovery.

That percentage range is based on brand, Berlin says, declining to specify which ones are lowest and highest.

Average dealership profit is up 60%, according to the National Automobile Dealers Assn.

Chrysler continues its efforts to bundle its Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and Ram brands into single dealership points. Eighty-six percent of its stores now represent all four brands, according to Urban Science’s latest dealership franchise activity report.

After Ford pulled the plug on its Mercury brand last year, 917 Mercury stores closed, leaving 819. Lincoln-Mercury dealerships now stand at 400. There were 1,140 Lincoln stores at the end of 2010, down 78 from 2009.

Some growing brands are increasing dealership numbers. Those include Volkswagen, Hyundai, Mini, Subaru and Kia.

Leaner operations, fewer retail outlets and increasing sales mean existing dealerships must quickly identify “true in-market buyers versus tire kickers,” says Jody Stidham, Urban Science’s director-global practice.

One way to do that is with lead scoring. It uses computer analytics to determine how close various online prospects are to purchasing a vehicle. Urban Science provides the scoring service to 10 auto makers.

“Lead scoring can increase lead closings by as much as 24%,” Stidham says. “Every lead deserves a follow-up,” but some require more urgency, depending where a shopper may be in the sales cycle.

Depending on the brand, up to 30% of retail vehicle sales stem from Internet leads, she says. More than 80% of auto buyers use the Internet to shop and research.

sfinlay@wardsauto.com