Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. have grabbed most of the upbeat headlines for the last few years, while General Motors Corp. has been plagued with downers.

GM's misery seemed endless: Painfully slow product launches, a series of debilitating strikes, messy capacity problems that limited output of high-profit trucks, and sinking market share.

Despite all of that, when first-quarter financial reports surfaced in mid-April, GM shellacked its two rivals. While Chrysler's earnings dropped 37% to $592 million and Ford's rose 15% to $1.55 billion from $973 million thanks largely to a turnaround in its financial services group, GM set an any-quarter record by posting earnings totaling $2.155 billion compared with $854 million a year earlier. GM's previous best was recorded during the second quarter of 1984.

Each of the Big Three had plenty of caveats: Chrysler set aside $115 million to cover the voluntary recall of pre-1994 minivans to replace tailgate latches; production of its all-new minivans is off to a slow start even as it posts expensive incentives on the old models; and with sales slowing, rebate costs are up.

Ford captured more U.S. market share, but its U.S. automotive profits were flat: $825 million vs. $816 million a year earlier. Outside the U.S., Ford earned $316 million on automotive operations, up from $157 million in '94. Ford said currency shifts - chiefly the strengthening Japanese yen and German mark - cost it $100 million in the quarter.

GM's results also need elaboration. During the year-earlier period, it took a $758-million charge to pay down its worldwide pension-fund liabilities. Otherwise it would've reported earnings exceeding $1.6 billion a year ago.

Nevertheless, GM's report indicates substantial gains were made in North American and overseas automotive operations, including its big Delphi Automotive Systems components group, and its non-automotive subsidiaries.

The big news was growing strength in its North American Operations (NAO), which strongly suggests GM is getting at least some semblance of control over costs. Profits on each car and light truck sold in North America doubled to $1,000 as NAO raked in nearly $1.1 billion compared with $199 million (after a $705-million pension charge) in '94. International Operations generated $522 million, up from $385 million a year earlier.

Although the overall results were somewhat better than Wall Street expected, GM's stock dropped 12.5 cents on the day the numbers were posted. That suggests there's still a good deal of caution out there about where industry sales are heading and whether GM can sustain big-time profitability in the months ahead.

For the record, GM remains bullish. Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer J. Michael Losh says he's sticking with GM's 15.6-million industry sales forecast for 1995 even though others have been reducing their estimates as sales have slackened in recent months. "We've been a rock of consistency in that regard," he says.

GM's inventories currently stand at about 90 days, well above the 65 days considered "normal," which is a red flag to analysts. But its incentive costs dropped to $693 per vehicle in the quarter - $100 below the year-earlier level and lowest of the Big Three.

Mr. Losh says he's not sure whether GM can keep a lid on incentive costs and that some production cutbacks might be coming to reduce stocks of slow-selling models.

Still, if GM can make a few billion in three months even as it remains the highest-cost producer in the U.S., you have to wonder how it will do when it finally gets its act together.