By on June 8, 2012

The General’s downward spiral from its zenith as one of the most powerful and respected companies in America into Chapter 11 was an agonizingly slow affair, requiring decades and a fair number of billion-dollar miscalculations. Today’s question offers many choices: which GM vehicle caused the most damage to the company’s bottom line and/or image? I’m going to present a few examples from my own list, not necessarily in order of severity.
Because grabbing the photos for this piece allows me to spend a lot of time at one of my all-time favorite car websites, Old Car Brochures, I really enjoyed picking out my personal favorite examples of GM’s most painful mistakes (we’ll leave out such money-losers as GM’s ill-fated Wankel pursuit, because you can’t fault a company for making a seemingly good bet that doesn’t pay off, plus they got blind-sided by the Arab oil embargo on that one anyway). Let’s start with the Chevrolet Corvair. GM realized that Volkswagen was really onto something with its lightweight, hot-selling Beetle, and so its engineers got to work on an innovative air-cooled/rear-engined sedan that held six passengers and cruised in American-grade comfort. The car turned out pretty well, but a series of penny-pinching hardware decisions that made oversteer and rear-end-jacking problems (in the hands of American drivers accustomed to the behavior of cars that handled like combine harvesters) even deadlier than the Beetle’s gave the car a bad reputation soon after its launch. When Ralph Nader published his book (five years after the Corvair’s launch), GM’s ham-handed attempts to crush him torpedoed the company’s image as an icon of straight-shooting American business practices. The later Corvairs were fine cars, but nobody cared… and lasting damage had been done.
Many of us blame the cheapening of the Cadillac brand— which took GM most of the last decade to reverse— on the Cimarron, but I think the Cimarron just completed the process started by the Seville (actually, it started a decade earlier, with the bean-counter-inspired decline in build quality, but the Seville was the first Cadillac that really wasn’t a Cadillac). For the in-depth view, you’ll want to read Ate Up With Motor’s excellent account; the short version is that Cadillac’s pursuit of high numerical sales figures in the 1970s turned a brand that once struck fear into ritzy European luxury car makers into a company coasting on the image of past quality. The Seville was based on the same platform as the Chevy Nova; it sold pretty well, but it didn’t ride or last like a “real” Cadillac.
Then there’s the Vega. This car could have been the one that kicked the invading hordes of Japanese subcompacts out of the country. It looked great, it had a modern overhead-cam engine and good-handling suspension, and it was a genuine Detroit-designed machine instead of some sort of rebadged Opel. Vegas flew out of the showrooms in vast quantities… and then each one served as a rolling— or, in many cases, stationary— advertisement to avoid GM products, forever. The Vega was much heavier than originally envisioned, the aluminum-block engines with their unlined cylinders overheated and failed, the bodies rusted in a hurry, and GM-versus-Chevrolet Division politics virtually ensured that the company would never be able to make the Vega right.
The Fiero started out looking like a sure-fire hit, with its plastic body panels and inexpensive components sourced from off-the-shelf stuff GM had already designed, but then it ended up weighing 500 pounds more than planned, the miserable Iron Duke engine was installed, and the marketers shifted focus from a sporty car to an econo-commuter machine. Like the Corvair, the final Fieros were good cars, but nobody cared by that point.
This may sound like blasphemy, but I think the Pontiac GTO caused incalculable lasting harm to The General’s fortunes. That’s because the main lesson GM appears to have learned from this smash-hit car was that the car doesn’t matter— marketing is what counts! After the GTO, which didn’t cost much more to build than a regular Tempest but raked in fat profits, GM put more focus on marketing and less on car design, much like having John Delorean’s advertising savvy but without his engineering abilities. We saw the same process happen all over again with the super-luxu-SUV craze 30 years later.
My choice for the biggest GM misstep is the Citation. GM had to hit a home run with their first front-wheel-drive sedan that appealed to American tastes, which they’d needed ever more desperately as the 1970s ground on, and the Citation turned out to be a fundamentally terrible car that alienated the remaining customers that hadn’t already been scared away by the Vega. Chrysler was able to solve the puzzle with their K Cars and Ford hung on long enough to build the Taurus, but GM spent the decade of the 1980s taking repeated tire-iron blows to the face from Japanese competition. For this, I blame the Citation most of all. Your turn now. What’s your choice? The Aztek? The Allanté?

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!

191 Comments on “Question: GM’s Costliest Misstep?...”


  • avatar
    Zackman

    GM X cars. That was it. Followed by the Vega. Oh, well, I’ll just say it: the 1970′s from the 1973 models on…

    Also, building mid-sized sedans where the back door glass didn’t open was another sin – vents don’t count. Thing is, Chrysler fell into that with the initial K-car sedans and wagons. Didn’t work for them, either. I became a Ford fan for a while.

    I, for one, liked the Aztek, but I loved and owned a Gremlin, too, so go figure…I like odd-ball cars.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      I became a Ford fan for a while…

      Don’t worry I won’t let anyone at Curbside Classic know that… :)

      • 0 avatar
        Zackman

        Can I help it that my father-in-law had a Fairmont and it actually was a good car and I couldn’t afford one at the time, and that I liked it? A little sympathy, please!

    • 0 avatar
      golden2husky

      I agree with the Citation, but sorry, can’t accept the GTO. For its day it was hardly a bad car. In fact, compared to what else was available it was pretty damn good. And let see what today’s equivalent will bring at Barrett-Jackson in 45 years…

      • 0 avatar
        BigDuke6

        RE-READ the GTO section. MM did not mention one word about the GTO’s quality.

      • 0 avatar
        JREwing

        His point was that the GTO was when they decided quality didn’t matter anymore as long as they could market the car.

        The GTO was an incredible car, but GM tried the GTO tricks on a bunch of lesser cars hoping nobody would notice. It took a few years, but they did.

    • 0 avatar
      DisTurbo

      I know. The Omega’s of the early 1980s were the epitome of GM’s “We don’t quite know what we’re doing” image.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    I can’t order them by severity either and I’ll try to stick to ones in my lifetime (1977 – present) although I I will include cars sold new during my lifetime.

    Vega – no comment

    Citation – although the sow’s ear X-bodys did turn into silk purses with the A-body’s based off of them

    Down sized Cadillacs

    4100V8 powered Cadillacs – I wager many Caddy buyers would have rather had the V4-6-8 with all the deactivation crap removed instead, even with the 13 mpg it would have meant.

    Killing all the B-bodys save the Caprice in 1985

    Phoning in the 350 diesel in the 80s and not carrying enough to do it right till it was too late.

    Dropping good name plates like “Park Avenue” and “Bonneville” and “Seville” for nonsense names and alpha numeric crap.

    Not using SUV profits to improve all the other cars.

    Turning Oldsmobile into something interesting and then raping and killing it dumping the corpse in an alley behind the headquarters.

    Hmmmmmmmm can’t think of anything else right now.

    • 0 avatar
      28-cars-later

      Citation and to a lesser extent Vega would probably be my number ones, but as you pointed out some later success came from X-bodys and Chevrolet as a brand could cope with the mistakes and not be ruined. The shortcomings and loss of share at Oldsmobile were also a serious problem, but the fact was Toyota was putting out a better middle branded family sedan type ‘Oldsmobile’ than GM was, and I think in hindsight there was little GM could do about it at the time.

      I think it was the disasters at Cadillac which more or less sank GM, from the cheapening first sought in the mid-sixties with a push for a common parts bin, to the CAFE inspired V468/Diesel/HT4100 fiascoes and downsizing fails of the mid 80s. Even if Chevrolet/Pontiac had slim margins on their products, B-O-C made the profit, especially Cadillac. Losing share in that market and in the process literally creating Japanese luxury rivals, is what doomed them (Lexus may have been inevitable, but I maintain Acura and Infiniti would not exist if not for the Cadillac fails of the 80s).

    • 0 avatar
      vent-L-8

      Dan, there should be some room in your list for the abandonment of SAAB. 10 years at a time without a model refresh. The original Cadillac SRX was supposed to have a SAAB twin, not wanting to take away from Cadillac sales SAAB ended with the Trailblazer knock-off. The Subaru knock-off in stead of making an all wheel drive 9-5 & 9-3… the list goes on.

      • 0 avatar
        Educator(of teachers)Dan

        SAAB was treated like a conquistador’s wife. Left in Europe neglected, clutching her rosary beads, while GM man-whored it up with every pretty little company that came by. Then when SAAB passed on from a broken heart and neglect, GM couldn’t be bothered to pay for the funeral.

      • 0 avatar
        Robert.Walter

        Re SAAB, GM’s mistake there was in buying into it, buying all of it, and then not selling or shutting it down before dumping cash into it and being distracted by its stinking corpse.

    • 0 avatar

      I’d add to this dedifferentiating the divisions. And letting the styling (for the most part) go down the tubes. And failing to boost reliability. My parents bought an ’80 Citation. Their 1970 Valiant was still going when the Citation bit this dust, shy of 100,000 miles.

    • 0 avatar
      Dan

      Never mind using SUV profits to improve their cars, GM didn’t even figure out using their SUV profits to improve their SUVs.

      The Escalade made Cadillac relevant again. It hasn’t been touched for six years.

      The Lambda crossovers weren’t touched for six years. This year they get a refresh consisting of new grills.

      The Trailblazer was marginal in 2002 and untouched for the next 8 years. Sure the midsize SUV died in the end. Having one that wasn’t junk would have moved another million of them in the meantime.

      GM didn’t sell a competitive midsize CUV until 2010.

      GM hasn’t sold a small SUV/CUV at all since the mid 90s Tracker and Blazer.

    • 0 avatar
      Kevin Kluttz

      How about the entire W-body line? Especially those hideous early 4-door models.

  • avatar
    Sundowner

    I think you’re looking at from the wrong perspective by looking at the car products. GM’s misstep was forgetting that they existed to make and sell cars at a profit. for a log, long time, they thought they were a heath care company (thanks Wagonner!), and before that, they thought they were an investment company that lived and died by the quarterly profit report. Someone forgot that they had to make cars people wanted to buy, and that became the culture of the company.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    Possibly the Astro and then U-Body minivans. It seems like GM (and Toyota, oddly) were determined to prove they knew better than customers as to what those customers really wanted. Space efficiency? Family-friendly packaging? Damn that, what customers really want is Body-on-frame construction/dusbuster styling/a butch nose.

    The difference between the Astro/Safari/U-Bodies and the Van/Previa is that the latter were also weird, but actually reliable.

    You see this with their take on hybrids: they went through years trying to do the not-Prius. I mean, really, hybrid GMT-900s? The venn diagram that could enompass half-ton customers on one side and hybrid buyers on the other would be two separate circles. In two different books. In different buildings.

    GM has/had a huge, fundamental disrespect for their customers. Big companies that succeed despite themselves often do.

    • 0 avatar
      mcarr

      I have to say that the idea of the Astro wasn’t bad, it was the execution. The 2003 Astro I had was the absolute worst vehicle I’ve ever owned. I bought it specifically because it was a BOF mid-sized box on wheels. Had it been a half-way decent vehicle it would’ve been perfect for my needs, but the horrible fuel economy (13 mpg hwy) and the feeling that it was tearing itself apart as it went down the road was too much to bear. I would love it if a quality vehicle with the same traits were available.

    • 0 avatar
      PenguinBoy

      “It seems like GM (and Toyota, oddly) were determined to prove they knew better than customers as to what those customers really wanted.”
      Some companies, such as Apple, can get this right. Customers don’t know what they want if they haven’t seen it yet. What is really needed, and what GM and Toyota missed with their early minivans, was a deep understanding of how potential customers would actually use the product. Chrysler nailed this part, and it worked out well for them in the ’80s and ’90s.

      “I mean, really, hybrid GMT-900s?”
      Although this one flopped in the market, it actually makes sense. Suppose hybrids can increase mileage by 20%. Increasing the mileage of an Echo owned by some green freak who drives 10,000 km / year is inconsequential, other than to make a smug political statement. Increasing the mileage of a GMT-900 that is driven 50,000 km / year by 20% is a difference worth going after. If the truck was driven for business, as many full sized trucks that put on many yearly miles are, you would think it would have a market if the fuel savings offset the extra upfront cost. The marketing and execution may have been flawed, but the idea seems sound.

      As to the original question – I vote for the Citation. A poorly developed unreliable car that sold in huge volumes did a lot to trash GMs reputation. Some of the others shown here were also flawed, but didn’t sell in volumes sufficient to do the same damage to GMs reputation.

      • 0 avatar
        psarhjinian

        “Although this one flopped in the market, it actually makes sense”

        I agree about the percentage improvement it offered, except that the buyers manifestly weren’t there.

        You can make money selling slim-returns mileage on Priuses to eco-freaks, but truck buyers, even if there is a reasonable chance at ROI, aren’t biting. Urban cowboys don’t care (or are allergic to environmentalism), and work truck people are either too cautious or concerned only with the purchase price.

      • 0 avatar
        Dan

        They never tried it on work truck people to find out. The hybrid was only offered in family car configuration with the 5′ bed.

        A couple hundred thousand work truck buyers a year pay $8,000 up front for the diesel option. It isn’t just about purchase price.

    • 0 avatar
      friedclams

      The Astro was unibody, not BOF. I own one, the packaging is amazing, a huge amount of space and confortable seating for 8. I will not defend the mileage or handling, though.

      GM sold millions of those Astros. I would say they were remarkably successful, considering as how they were a parts-bin exercise to stall until GM had a real FWD minivan (which of course were a hugh disappointment, as you note).

      • 0 avatar
        TR4

        I would call it a unibody also, although like many other unibodies there was a separate bolted on subframe for the front suspension and engine/transmission.
        My ’85 (first year of production) was one of my favorite vehicles. I got about 15mpg around town and 18 highway with a 3.73 towing axle.
        The Astro/Safari was in production for twenty years with only one major facelift around ’95; how bad could it have been?

      • 0 avatar
        MrWhopee

        I have the pleasure (yes, pleasure!) of renting an Astro for long distance travels a few times, and I must say I like those things. Pretty nice as far as minivan goes. Though admittedly I don’t know what it’s like to own one, but for interstate traveling with lots of people and stuff, it’s pretty nice.

  • avatar
    jmo

    the bean-counter-inspired decline in build quality,”

    And technology, John Smith GM’s CEO from 1992 to 2000 was once quoted as saying that folks won’t pay for what they can’t see. Is anyone really going to make a car buying decision based on OHC vs. OHV, disks vs. drums, 3speed vs. 5 speed?

    Apparently, yes.

    • 0 avatar

      I think you’re talking about Roger Smith, no?

      D

      • 0 avatar
        schmitt trigger

        Under R.S. tenure, GM “diversified” into several non automotive business (Hughes Electronics),, while simultaneously canibalizing its core auto business.

    • 0 avatar
      bunkie

      I actually think that he was right. The problems occur when the “unseen items” actually improve the diving/ownership experience and competitors have a better product while you refuse to acknowledge that fact.

      GM is a funny company. When they put their minds and shoulders into it, they can be awesome. The reinventing of the SBC (small-block-chevy) into the LS series proved that pushrods can still have a place in the modern world. LS engines are capable of incredible power output with decent reliability. Just look at what Hot Rod has done with junkyard LS engines coupled with cheap turbos.

      • 0 avatar
        Felis Concolor

        Indeed. Remove the GM connection to the LSx series and you’d cut down the forum bitching regarding that particular engine architecture by 90%.

        The latest issue of a favorite print mag ran through a comparison of rectangular port LS3 heads to the earlier cathedral port LS1/LS2 design and demonstrated a streetable 600+ horsepower with the “old” heads from an aftermarket supplier, which underscores the incredible overall goodness of that particular OHV layout.

  • avatar
    tomLU86

    Good piece! The bean counters were, and will be again, GM’s costliest misstep. All the “missteps” represented good or great strategy. They were undone by poor execution in an effort to save a few nickels or dollars per car. The Vega is the biggest misstep–it killed GM’s reputation. The X-car WAS a home run–for a few months–until quality problems became evident as the cars went into service.

    The Aztek helped make Pontiac even more laughable–but the Ass-tech’s significance is that it marked the pinnacle of corporate dysfunction at ALL levels: design, marketing, and engineering–nothing said LOSER like the Ass-tech.

    Of course, the dysfunction was caused by poor decisions exacerbated by a lack of money–these two things fed on each other. If Lutz had arrived in 1992, GM might have turned around enough to survive 2008, but he was too late. Even so, more than anyone, he unleashed the considerable potential of GM’s people, and at eliminated the prospect of more Vegas. Pehaps more Sevilles and GTOs. Will his replacement be able to finish what he started?

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      I agree about the bean-counters, although I’d put the Citation as GM’s #1 fail. Yes, the Vega sucked, but the competition wasn’t much better…exploding Pintos, anyone?

      Citation was hyped like nobody’s business, and it was in many ways a great design, but it was bean-counted into quality hell…at the same time that Honda and Toyota sales were really catching fire, and Ford was introducing the mediocre but competent Fox platform. At it’s release a large part of the public was ready to give GM another chance, but once it hit the fan many of us were done with GM for good.

      I’d give Corvair runner up status, GM’s first big blunder and they refused to learn anything from the experience, except how to repeat it.

      • 0 avatar
        jeoff

        Pinto was much, much, better. Pinto had bad PR but was about as safe as any car at the time. While not nearly as good as the Japanese cars, Pintos actually had some vlaue as a used car, people drove them into the 90′s. Vegas? three years and they were about done.

  • avatar
    nickoo

    In 10 years: E-assist. What a complicated piece of engineering that does virtually nothing to significantly increase fuel economy, what is the point again?

    Bonus: The chevy volt, they should have came out making it upmarket so they could justify the cost premiums or knock 10k off the asking price and sell each one at a loss as a halo vehicle. Branding this as a chevy was a huge mistake.

    Bonus bonus: Buick, by far the weakest of near luxury brands, mercury died, Chrysler consolidated to two brands, most of the other majors are two brand structures, it’s time for GM to face reality and let this one die.

    • 0 avatar
      Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

      1.something billion Chinese might dispute the Buick prediction, but I suppose in North America Chevy could squeeze it out, which in a way the Volt kinda does already to some extent.

    • 0 avatar
      Herm

      eAssist is wonderful, its cheap, gives you an economy boost.. under $800 and it allows several things:

      1. stop/start without the usual engine grinding noise, this alone saves a bunch in congested city driving.

      2. 110ft-lbs of torque from 0 to about 2100rpm.. this allows GM to use a tall overdrive in the gear box.. you can cruise on the hwy at 70mph while the engine is only turning 1600rpms, you step on the gas and the due to the assist torque the engine does not bog down, it revs up and then downshifts. High torque at low rpms is good.

      3. plus you get some brake energy recovery

      The disadvantage is a lump of battery in the trunk.

      • 0 avatar
        Dirk Stigler

        Every road test sofar seems to only get about 26-28mpg out of eAssist. That’s the same as the non-hybrid 4-cylinder, and puts the whole notion right up there with the V8-6-4 and the Olds diesel in the annals of why-did-they-bother GM drivetrains.

        Worth noting: eAssist is the same basic thing as the Honda hybrid system, which is also noted for disappointing real-world fuel economy.

    • 0 avatar
      Dan

      E-assist is like cylinder deactivation.

      It isn’t intended to have any real world effect.

      It’s for the manufacturer to game their CAFE compliance numbers.

  • avatar
    W.

    In a purely pragmatic view, I think we need to take a step back and look at the entire GM corporate structure.

    Coming in the wake of the relatively disastrous LaSalle/Viking/Pontiac “Junior Brand” in the 1920/30′s, GM needed to be far more realistic in how many divisions the market could support. Flexibility is key. Sloan wanted a car for every pocketbook, but when those pocketbooks looked elsewhere, the company needed to re-asses what it produced and pare it down. The shuttering of Pontiac and Oldsmobile is in line with that, sadly. Of course it’s all hindsight, but if GM had been able to restructure along those same lines, perhaps even as late as the late 1970s, they could have invested their dollars into making fewer, high-quality products, and each dealership sold a smattering of every product.

    Then we get into the fiasco of people no longer moved up divisionally from Chevy to Buick to Cadillac, but instead went from Nova to Chevelle to Caprice…

    Armchair quarterbacking, to be sure, but if we’re trying to assess where GM went wrong, I think delving deeper into the corporate structure is key.

  • avatar
    dwight

    Overall, GM’s lack of quality in every vehicle (primarily starting in the 80s when the Citation showed up) killed GM. Out the gate, the Citation had engine and braking issues and poor build (along with the pheonix and omega and skylark — am I forgetting any rebadged cars in this series?). To replace the Citation, they gave us the baretta which was also a piece of crap. In between came the Cavalier et al, and more poor quality in assembly and engine choices.

    Then there was the barrage of FWD full size sedans like the Olds 88, 98 Buick LeSabre, and more. More crap. And does GM really know who their customer is? Rebadging cars to a customer who has no interest in buying (Cadillac Cimmaron?).

    Inject that with faulty computer modules, poor assembly, cheap components, faulty engines (like the redesign of the 3.8L engine post 92) and what you’re left with is tired, broke customers fed up with their cars and the company as a whole. I was, anyway.

    If GM put the emphasize on quality back in the 70s like with a car such as the Vega, Honda and Toyota wouldn’t have take their leads as they did. Also, with the influx of manufacturers on the North American soil, it was inevitable that GM would lose market share. So the plant closing in the 80s were inevitable. All the politics and inefficiencies that stewed in their main head quarters, showed up in the products, manufacturing and eventually, the dealer network. There’s my rant.

    I like that new Sonic, though. Cool looking car…no no, stop. Never again.

    • 0 avatar
      nickoo

      The GM H bodies were their best ever front wheel drive cars, particularly with the 3800 v-6, and bonus for the supercharged ones. Now, you could say that’s a really good thing, or a really bad thing, depending on your experience with them. The designs of the H body exterior and interiors between all the clones from 1993 up to the 2000+ bonneville and the final H body, the buick lucerne, were some of the worst automotive designs to come out of the 90s. Having said that, my olds 88 and buick lesabre have been near bulletproof, and have extremely low cost of ownership. The grips I have are the terrible ergonomics such as the steering wheel was slightly mis-aligned to the seat in the 88, and the seats are some of the worst punishment I have ever had the displeasure of sitting upon in the lesabre.

    • 0 avatar
      KalapanaBlack

      The H-Bodies were great in their time, but they didn’t prove to be very reliable. Sure, the engine and transmission were average for the early ’90s, but the rest of the cars absolutely fell apart. The paint problems are notorious, and were never fixed despite a 9-model-year production run for the Gen 2 H-Body. Interiors disintegrated (if you can find me a single H-Body with a headliner that isn’t simply dissolving around the rear window, I’ll buy you lunch). Electrical components went south in a hurry (look up HVAC problems on H-Bodies; I’m not sure a single one has an original blower switch that still works). Plus the exhaust systems had the least longevity this side of a ’90s Nissan product, Nissans being the worst in the industry.

      Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely LOVED the H-Body back in the day. I wanted nothing more than a Park Avenue Ultra or Olds LSS with the bonkers L67 supercharged engine. But they are what they are, and they are almost no more despite selling in the millions.

      Also, the ’92 redesign of the 231 V6 was perfectly fine. The ’95 redesign, which christened it “Series II” and coincided with the plague known as DexCool, was what did it in. Again, they built them just as crappily as they could for, what, 9 more years, until Series III designation came? The plastic intake manifolds, the hard plastic valve cover gaskets, the supercharger plumbing that caught various components on fire… Ridiculous. The 3800 became crap, but it certainly wasn’t in ’92.

  • avatar
    Lichtronamo

    It has to be the one-two punch of the Vega and Citation. First and foremost the failure is due to the significance of Chevrolet within GM; as Chevrolet goes, so does GM. The failure of the Vega at the start of the 70s opened the door to the Japanese small cars and allowed those manufactures to gain a foot hold without much of a fight from GM. Once the Japanese manufactures had established that beachhead, the Citation, again THE critical Chevrolet of its time, failed to turn back the advance allowing the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord to become America’s family cars for the next 30 years (based on retail sales). GM simply lost the plot in the two most critical market segments (outside of full size trucks which saved their asses) in about 10 years and have paid the price ever since with lame, uncompetitive products like the Chevette, Cavalier, Celebrity and Lumina(!!!) or simply mediocre products like the Cobalt, A-Body Malibu, and GM10 Impala. And, its the continued mediocrity of these latter products that open the door for the Koreans, which were GM’s real competitors during the 1990s and 2000s, as the Japanese continued to push their cars upmarket trading less on price and more on desirability.

  • avatar
    210delray

    If the discussion is limited to product (not marketing, union wages, health care, or pensions), then I’d put in a vote for the W-body. It came out 2 years after the revolutionary Taurus and Sable, and then only as a 2-door coupe without a Chevrolet version. Not until 1990 was the Lumina introduced, in coupe and sedan body styles, along with the 4-door versions of the Grand Prix, Regal, and Cutlass Supreme. Too little, too late (and I still think the first generation Lumina from the C-pillar back is one of the ugliest cars produced in the last quarter century).

    • 0 avatar
      Lichtronamo

      The Lumina has to be by far one of the most awkward overall car designs ever to leave a design studio both inside and out. It looks like one of those rejected concept designs for a production car pictures of which always show up years after the real product debuts.

  • avatar
    psarhjinian

    In retrospect, I think the GM10 implementation was probably the biggest in terms of money. Big plans + gutless leadership + politicking + half-assed implementation + multiple changes in direction = epic failure.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      Yeah they started planning on that thing in… 1982 I believe, and the first W-body wasn’t released until 1988! And then it was still behind the competition!

      • 0 avatar
        Steven Lang

        The GM-10 program was the most expensive product launch GM implemented (inflation adjusted), the worst in terms of loss per vehicle produced, and the most damaging to GM’s standing as a leader in the most voluminous segment of the North American car market.

        The culture behind it’s launch also fed into the growing anti-GM bias of the late 1980′s. Ross Perot became a hero and GM’s image became severely tarnished due, in part, to the mismanagement of this program.

        So I guess this is where I will cast my vote.

  • avatar
    Dirk Stigler

    I’ll add a couple things:

    - Not having a coherent brand strategy since at least the mid 1960s, but especially in the early 1980s through 1990s. Even as a kid not yet interested in driving, it was obvious that Dad’s Chevy Celebrity company car was the same thing as an Olds Cutlass Ciera, Pontiac 6000 (“like an Audi 5000, but 1000 more!” Really?) and Buick Century. And those were well differentiated compared to the J cars. I wondered how they made money on those. Turns out, they didn’t.

    - Insisting on sticking with antiquated powertrains. Sure, the Iron Duke moved an A body sedan just fine, but when you could get a lively Honda Accord instead, and it didn’t have a V6 *because it didn’t need one* the GM alternative just paled in comparison. At least the SMB was still a big deal, right? Wrong, when the spec sheet says your Camaro IROC makes 150hp while the entry-level BMW makes 130 from a 4 cylinders and 1/3 the cubic inches.

    It’s probably a mistake to focus on any particular product disaster. The real problem was (and sometimes seems still to be) that the entire company, with its thousands of people, just didn’t get it. Audi deliberately built its new office HQ in the 1990s right next to a factory, “so we don’t forget that we make cars here”. Can anyone imagine 1980s GM saying that? Even thinking of it?

    • 0 avatar
      dejal1

      Back in those days the car mags were easily bought off.

      I remember that hack David E. Davis having a writeup on a Camaro back in the 80s. That was the Camaro with the funky rough steering wheel. He thought it was the greatest thing in the world. I believe he was in West Virginia and was passing a dump truck full of coal and the thing backfired with a lot of flame when he stepped on it to pass.

      But of course he was nothing but a whore and attempted to put lipstick on the pig. English shotguns and leather elbow patches on your hounds tooth sports coat don’t come cheap. I wonder how many people got sucked into buying crap because of clowns like him.

      And as long as the big 3 was moving enough product, all was right with the world.

      • 0 avatar
        Charliej

        Remember David E. Davis worked at the Chevrolet advertising company before he worked at Car and Driver. He went back to advertising during his hiatus from C and D. For C and D in the sixties and seventies, anything GM did was great. Their road test of the original GTO was so off the wall. They never questioned the car they were testing. Instead of the 389, it had a 421 engine and they did not know or care.

        As far as GM’s greatest error. I would say it had to be releasing cars that were not quite ready. The public does not like it when they are the beta testers for a company. How different would things have been if the Corvair had been right when it was released. Corvairs were fun cars to drive. The Vega was also a nice car to drive. The engine troubles could have been avoided with more testing. The Citation just needed finishing before releasing it to the public. Look how well the platform did when it was right. The repeated theme is, let it go now, we will make it right later. That may save some money, but it costs customer goodwill that can never be regained.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      Actually, I would call this the “self-delusional ‘it’s good enough’ until the market tells you it’s not” mentality, crossed with the (not a) failure to learn from this experience so that it is repeated ad infinitum while the competition continually improves and your customer base bleeds away until it’s lights out!

  • avatar
    dcars

    I think there are bigger issues where GM lost billions. The Fiat deal, they paid two billion dollars to get out of the agreement. Starting Saturn; never made a penny and spent Billions. SAAB, again billions lost with nothing gained. Hindsight is 20/20 but all the money lost on these ventures could have gone into the design of better products of their core brands.

    • 0 avatar
      SilverHawk

      Yes! Obviously, it’s more interesting to talk about certain cars that never lived up to expectations, but GM was a company that practically invented fiscal naivety. Spending 6 billion dollars on the launch of the Saturn brand, and then letting corporate politics allow that investment to rot on the vine, was a classic example of how they mismanaged their finances. When corporate infighting takes precedent over fiscal responsibility, doom & gloom are just around the corner.

    • 0 avatar
      28-cars-later

      Ford did a similar splurge with the Premier Auto Group instead of developing Panther/Econoline/Ranger, all three who have are are biting the dust recently. I’m not sure if Ford ever profited from their European children, but many TTACers would rather have seen Ford develop their own brands instead of a buying spree which didn’t amount to much in the end.

      • 0 avatar
        Glen.H

        They got some decent money and engineering out of Volvo,and possibly a little out of Aston-Martin, but Jaguar was just a black hole for cash. Imagine if the billions there had been spent on Lincoln!

    • 0 avatar
      krhodes1

      GM did get a LOT of safety and engine technology out of Saab. The Ecotec line is pretty much a Saab design through and through.

  • avatar
    docrock

    GM during the 70′s through 90′s: a finance company that also built cars.

  • avatar
    jco

    the X cars were indeed terrible terrible cars. mostly i think it was a long slow terminal illness that affected every gland and organ of the GM body.

    but that list really is not complete without mention of the Cavalier. I believe even now that the Cruze still bears some residual affect of being in the same slot in the lineup that the Cavalier used to occupy.

    • 0 avatar
      JMII

      I agree: the Cavalier! My wife owned one. At the same time (early/mid 80s) I owned a Civic. The difference between these two cars was as wide as the Pacific Ocean in terms of handling, acceleration, fit-n-finish, durability, etc, etc. Both were “cheap” economy cars, yet the Civic was so much better then the Cavalier it was not even funny. Granted I’m not old enough to comment on 70′s era GM products but by pushing Cavaliers out the door in the 80s they sealed their fate as far as my buying choices go.

      Ironically I had a Cruze as a rental about a month ago and it wasn’t half bad. I still wouldn’t buy one, but it did a fine job at the required tasks (point A to point B, nothing fell off, good mileage). Much better then the Aveo penalty box Hertz gave me the last time.

      • 0 avatar
        Neb

        The Cavalier for people my age is the chief deadly sin. It was a car that if considered next to the competition was stone dead last, and the only reason anybody bought them is because they cost the least. Any sort of person who was any bit discriminating about cars bought something else, or even bought something else *used*, as it was far better than a new Cavalier. I started buying car magazines in the late 90s and never saw a Cavalier in a comparison test, presumably because C/D didn’t want to write “now here’s 4 interesting products and something that was built in an ex-Soviet tractor factory.”

        With a few exceptions (rwd Caprices and the Camaro spring to mind) every car sold under Chevrolet from 1990 to the mid 2000′s was the bottom of the market. The Lumina, The Monte Carlo, the excretible Malibu. The only people who bought these things at retail were people who didn’t care about cars at all, and wanted something cheap. Not the best market to be identified with. Even the best car of that era, the old Impala, fits in here. It was eulogized a little while ago by Jack Baruth, and even in the eulogy Jack said “it was the car nobody wanted to drive but everybody did anyway.”

        This is probably not a deadly sin, but in my generation it fixed the idea that GM made cars that were the worst. The Cavalier is long dead, but even today people my age remain wary of anything small and FWD the general puts out.

      • 0 avatar
        sckid213

        @Neb — totally agree. I’m 28, and growing up, GM cars (besides Cadillacs) were always bottom of the barrel. I don’t recall anybody ever telling me this, but it was obvious just by looking. Not only were the interiors offensively cheap, but even from the outside the cars just looked like crude pieces of crap. The Japanese were indeed so far ahead of GM it wasn’t even funny. In suburban San Diego where I grew up, NOBODY bought GM cars (they did buy some trucks but most of the domestic business seemed to go to Ford, and Chrysler for minivans). But for some reason, I always had a soft spot for GM and secretly hoped they’d turn it around. Maybe I’m an old soul.

        I still remember the first time, circa 2005-ish (?), I saw a re-freshed Impala. I wasn’t up on my car enthusiast-ing at the time, so I didn’t know such a drastic refresh was coming. We all know the Impala was nothing special and kind of ripped off the Accord’s styling. But you know what? It was a NORMAL looking car. I looked inside. Hey, the interior actually looked pretty good. Again, NORMAL looking. It was the nicest, most contemporary GM interior I’d ever seen in my entire life. Not long after, the Pontiac G6 came out. Again, wow, a normal, contemporary looking car with a decent interior. Then came the Lambdas — wow, now we’re talking.

        I guess what I’m trying to say is that for a LONG time, there were normal cars, and there were GM cars that were so bad they were of their own category. That rental Impala I saw one day in 2005 signaled to me that GM could actually build a normal car. It’s been all uphill from there. Never in my entire life did I think GM would be building handsome cars across the line-up with class-leading interiors. I know they’re hardly out of the woods, but it’s been amazing to watch.

  • avatar
    Advance_92

    The answer may be a bit generational. Personally it would be my grandfather’s 1980 Citation, which spent most of its first two years at the dealership with all sorts of problems.

  • avatar
    thegamper

    In terms of vehicles being a costly failure I would have to say the Corvair. The vehicle that started a consumer movement and burned that image into the public psyche. Nader and his book are household names and the story behind it is American history.

    The icon of GM’s demise in public perception though has to be the H2 in my opinion. Never was there such a stigma attached to a vehicle and hence the company that made it. In a time of rising gasoline prices and environmentalism, the H2 firmly placed GM on many American’s shortlist of irresponsible corporate citizens to the point where it was hip to hate on GM. The failure to sell the brand in bankruptcy, even to the Chinese, is proof that Hummer was toxic.

    Then there is the enthusiast in me that would point to the SSR as the signal that the end was near. That vehicle was just stupid on a mangnitude that I didnt think was possible.

    • 0 avatar
      Neb

      Hummer was definitely for me a new low in my perception of GM. Even the ads GM put on TV managed to underline the point. They actually insulted the prospective buyer, saying “are you stupidly insecure and shallow as a rain puddle? We have the truck for you.” The fact that they were shown tells me that the suits knew they were selling to the bottom end of the ol’ intelligence bell curve. To repeat a point a made a few posts up, that’s not a good market to aim for.

      • 0 avatar
        Joe McKinney

        How about the “Born from Jets: ad for the Saab 9-7X? Talk about appealing to ego and presumptions of grandeur. The car is little more than a dolled-up Chevy Trailblazer, but they want you to think it’s something akin to a jet fighter plan.

      • 0 avatar
        Neb

        The patient suffered quite a few delusions before death, let me tell you. Like this one time it started rebadging Subarus…

    • 0 avatar
      Les

      When Hummer first became a ‘Thing’ all I could think about was, “If/when I get money, I’m getting a Hummer.” The H1 was just so big and butch and Nnnngrrraaaarrrh! It was ugly, but it was a British Bulldog kind of ugly, and wouldn’t have looked too out of place out here on the dirt roads.

      Then, they discontinued the H1 in favor of the H2.. which was Big and… big.. and ugly, but not the kind of endearing sort of ugly like you got with the H1. It looked like someone had just chopped up a couple of refrigerators and welded them all to a Tahoe chassis.

      When I first felt an aspiration for a BBB-SUV (Big, Butch, Beefy Sport-Utility Vehicle)I wanted a Suburban, then I wanted an H1… then the H2 came out, I went back to wanting a Suburban.

      …oddly enough though, these days what I really want is an Isuzu Amigo.

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    1. Appointing accountants to run the company. GM went from making cars to making money. As cars were now the means and not the end catastrophe was inevitable.

    2. Discontinuing the 1977+ B-bodies, arguably the best passenger cars GM ever built.

  • avatar
    Crosley

    The common thread for most of these is poor quality.

    GM didn’t have to be Toyota or Honda when it came to reliability, but at least have “not-lemon” quality. That’s really when their fortunes reversed, the only thing that saved them from a death spiral were big trucks and SUVs. My parents largely gave up on GM in the late 70′s as a result of GM’s poor quality.

    We can look at all sorts of design from every company during the dark era of early government regulation up through the late 80′s and laugh at what they came up with, but GM would have been fine had the consumer been getting a product that did what it was supposed to do.

    • 0 avatar
      golden2husky

      One can only imagine what GM’s fortunes might have been had the X cars been reliable, even if they were built with middling assembly quality. Many of those buyers would likely never had to go to Honda, so they would not have known too much of the difference. Based on sheer number of Citations sold, there seemed to be no shortage of customers who were willing to buy the “first Chevy of the 80s”…

  • avatar
    DaveDFW

    I’d have to say that Murilee’s statement, “the car doesn’t matter–marketing is what counts,” perfectly sums up GM’s decline and is descriptive of decades of GM underachievements.

    Great article!

  • avatar
    marc

    I disagree about the Gen 1 Seville. The modified Nova platform actually made them solid and reliable vehicles. Many were still running 12-15 years later, and held up much better than their boat tailed replacements. I think it may have been the last desirable Caddy until Cadillac started its renaissance in ’92.

    I agree with the Vega and Citation, but would add pretty much the rest of the compacts and mid-sizers from then forward, except the Celebrity and its siblings. But all the Chevettes (and T siblings), Cavaliers (and J siblings), Corsicas (and L siblings), and all the GM-10s killed GM.

    I would also add the hubris of Saturn as a final nail in the coffin. I owned a Saturn for barely over a year. Lost thousands on it because I just couldn’t take it anymore.

  • avatar
    willbodine

    #1. Chevy Vega. Turned off habitual GM buyers and signalled to competitors how hollow GM’s engineering reputation was.
    #2. Olds V8 diesel. Who would buy another GM car after one of these?
    #3. Citation. How could “the largest auto company in the world” get it so wrong with their mass-market vehicle.
    #4. Just about everything else after that.

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    It seems like sometime in the 1960s, GM lost sight of the basic premise of any seller of goods or services: that is, the reality of what you’re selling has to match up with what you’re promising. Admittedly, prior to the mid-1960s, the Detroit 3 enjoyed an oligopoly: they only competed with themselves and with a big labor union (the UAW) driving a significant cost element common to all of the companies (labor), it’s not surprising that they didn’t compete too hard against each other in other areas. Especially given the fact that runaway financial success of one company — through superior whatever — would likely be met by significantly higher demands from the UAW at the next contract negotiations.

    In any event, the common characteristic of all these “turkeys” was a failure in execution, not basic concept. I drove a number of Corvairs, including a ’62 and and ’64. As with the VW Beetle and FWD cars today, what the Corvair featured was packaging efficiency for its drivetrain. The Corvair had a lot of room in it, and the “trunk” in front had pretty good capacity as well. However, the bring the car in at its price target, corners had to be cut with the rear suspension, with very nasty results as any driver of the car in the rain would find out. The Vega, the Citation — same thing. The Vega was a pretty cool-looking car — much more refined looking and driving than the horrible Ford Pinto (I’ve drive both). But the execution sucked. Same with the Citation. I remember thinking he first time I was in one of those that they really had the packaging thing down: lots of room, not very big car. But they cheaped out on the braking systems (Citations would lock up the rear wheels in a second, putting the car into a terminal spin). And so on with the GM diesels and the V8-6-4 Cadillac. So, I would say, by the 1980s, GM’s goose was cooked with most buyers . . . and people would only buy GM cars on price, which is not where you want to be selling anything other than bulk commodities (wheat, coal, oil).

    Bringing products downmarket (Cadillac, Buick, etc.) was just a symptom of that failure, not a cause.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      Good analysis Bruce! I think it is fair to say that GM developed into a producer of a bulk commodity; this was never more obvious and then when they started giving nearly free financing away in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks. As to the product itself I think you could say they also, and for a long time, suffered from under spec and overreach (not always on each car but where these to did combine, they produced terrible cars, but otherwise, where they did not combine, they merely produced many mediocre to poor vehicles.)

  • avatar
    Cavalier Type 10

    As far as product goes, it’s their ability to take a good idea and piss away it’s potential with poor build quality, reusing an old powertrain, or overusing the worst interior parts known to man. Most people have long forgot about the catastrophic Citation, Vega or Corvairs. What they remember is the horrible interior of the Trailblazer they took for a test drive. Most people remember renting a Impala and being glad to get home to their Honda Accord. It’s maybe buying a Chevy and seeing a $2000 rebate thrown on the hood 2 months later, dinging the resale of your car. People could have long forgiven the Corvairs and Citations, but when every car from GM has something substandard snuck in, compared to the competition, it’s easy to piss off generation after generation.

    • 0 avatar
      JLGOLDEN

      I beleive that no single product, in recent memory, has caused damage to GM’s reputation. But let’s talk about the RENTAL CAR exposure. Thousands of people experience a GM rental car every year. That’s a chance to set forth a ton of opionions, and it creates dinner conversation amongst people “…I rented the shittiest new Pontiac in Las Vegas…” In the last four years, I’ve rented an Aveo, an Aura twice, and a G6. During that time, I also rented a Jetta, Sentra, Titan, Caliber, and a couple of Camrys. If I didn’t know better, and I thought that these GM rentals were highly representative of that company’s products, I’d never set foot in one of their dealerships. Granted, some of these experinces date back to 2008-era cars. But opinions get set in place after three days of commuting.

  • avatar
    Lorenzo

    The Citation was probably the last straw, not the “reason”. GM management was too arrogant to respond forcefully to the Nader challenge over the Corvair, and that was the first step down the slippery slope. Another was the cookie cutter approach to compacts, with the Buick Special, Olds F-85 and Pontiac Tempest nearly identical. There were more and more mis-steps along the way to the Citation.

    One was the dominance of the bean counters while GM still had excellent engineering chops. Murilee’s art car, the 1965 Impala, was solid engineering, but it was also the subject of the largest (at the time) safety recall. Bean counters saved a buck on those full size cars by putting an inadequate engine mount on the V8 engines. Not only did it cause deaths, but GM’s response was not to replace the mount, but install a bracket on it to prevent the engine from lifting up when it did fail, and then charging customers $30 to install it! Another ’60s failing was maroon paint that faded after a year or so, with GM washing its hands of responsibility.

    The Shift from engineering to marketing emphasis was another step, the rusting Vega followed, and when GM eliminated separate division management and the product differentiation that it produced, we got the Nova/Seville/Omega, the X-bodies and the Cimarron. By the mid-’80s, GM was just a bankruptcy waiting to happen, delayed only by the profitable truck-buying binge of the late ’90s – early ’00s. The slide seems longer, but it really only took 25 years, +/-.

  • avatar
    Pch101

    The Vega, X-cars, etc. were all disasters, of course. But the quality was never particularly good.

    The owner’s review of an Impala from 1966 provides an example: http://www.55-57chevys.com/coccc/articles/646/66asty1.html

    Things that don’t work, lousy brakes and handling even for the day, and bad design were all part of the package. But it was 1966 and there was no Honda Accord to purchase instead, so these deficiencies were tolerated even when they were criticized.

    That business model got turned on its head when reliable affordable imports became available. It took awhile but over time, the consumer began to realize that he no longer had to tolerate shoddy quality and inadequate service.

    The X-car probably wouldn’t have seemed so bad if there wasn’t something better that was available. Sloan built GM as a marketing-driven company, and it was woefully prepared for rivals that did a fundamentally better job of designing and building cars than GM could.

    • 0 avatar
      golden2husky

      It wasn’t just Japanese imports. Consumers once had a story on what cars were always as reliable as the Japanese. I don’t remember the models, but CR’s words were “mostly big Fords”…Now reliable is not synonymous with quality, but even in the 70s there were reliable American cars. Just big ones. Detroit just couldn’t get their heart into small cars….

  • avatar
    philadlj

    Costlist Misstep…Deadliest Sin…the Citation was both.

    http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/2010/12/curbside-classic-1980-chevrolet-citation-gms-deadliest-sin-ever/

    I don’t believe any other automobile in history fell so far so fast.

    1980: 811,000 sales
    1985: 63,000

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      I think they spent far more on Saturn for far fewer sales while ticking off their existing dealers and disappointing thousands of new customers. They spent between three and four times what competitors did to develop new compacts sedans that were almost as good as the competition in many areas even though the competition had four year model cycles and GM couldn’t amortize the Saturn’s development expenses if it could be sold at peak volume and list price for a decade.

    • 0 avatar
      salhany

      The Citation was the topper on the small car crap sundae GM started with the Vega.

      I love the fact that the finance dept at GM wouldn’t approve fender liners for the Vega that would have cost around $2 a car. So GM had to replace millions of $$ worth of fenders under warranty when they and the shock towers immediately rusted out. Brilliant.

      And then they repeated the mistake by leaving out an inexpensive rear brake proportioning valve on the Citation.

  • avatar
    CJinSD

    There are no wrong answers when it comes to finding fault with GM.

  • avatar
    Flipper35

    It wasn’t the cars so much as killing off almost every single line when they finally got them right and keeping the crappy ones.

  • avatar
    lw

    Which car? All of them.

    I separate GM into two timelines, “Did nothing wrong” and “did nothing right”. You pick the year when the switch flipped.

    GM’s entire workflow to design, produce and sell amazing cars was a sight to behold!

    But, like all things it had a fatal flaw. The flaw was the inability to cut costs and maintain the brilliance. It was an either / or. So when GM lost the ability to set prices in the market, the workflow disintegrated and the product went south. So GM can build amazing cars that people would pay a premium for, but that’s it. They should just sell Caddilac, corvettes and high end trucks.

    GM in the before time and Apple of today are very similar.

  • avatar
    nikita

    The GM “system” started to die way back in the 1950′s, but serious missteps by Ford, Chrysler and the implosion of the independents made GM the sales juggernaut of the 1960′s, masking the basic problem that ultimately killed them. A cheaply trimmed Buick gave them a short term sales boost, but made Pontiac and Oldsmobile irrelevant from a pricing/prestige standpoint. Death of those divisions took decades. Delorean managed to give Pontiac its sporty image, crowding Chevy, for a while and Olds was arguably the styling leader in the 1970s, after its engineering was long gone.

  • avatar
    harshciygar

    I’m surprised more people haven’t said Saturn.

    Saturn came along at a time when GM should have been shedding brands, not adding them. Instead of remaking one of its hallmark brands with some of Saturn’s good ideas, GM wasted billions into creating new cars and a new brand that, let’s be honest, nobody needed or wanted.

    Sure, GM was building crappy cars, but a major automaker can survive a couple of crappy cars. What is harder to survive are crappy brands, and GM already had a few dogs in the stable when it launched Saturn.

    • 0 avatar
      Dirk Stigler

      You could argue that Saturn was (at the time) a very positive sign, because there was the recognition within GM that its basic culture was to blame for its woes. Remember the enthusiasm (or hype) when the new cars were shown and had modern technology under the hood and no commonality with any other GM car? But, in the end the Detroit mafia worked its way into Saturn, and the uniqueness which was its whole selling point was out the window, making it finally just another redundant GM nameplate.

      Saturn is probably one of the saddest chapters in GM history.

  • avatar
    troyohchatter

    I think that one of the biggest failures was the Aztek, and not because it didn’t work; but because it DID. The Aztek was kind of like a girl with an ugly face and a housedress on. You get her to your house and she pulls off her glasses, lets down her hair, and takes the dress off to reveal a smoking hot body.

    Ok, so it wasn’t THAT good, but still, it was one of the first crossovers and it drove and functioned pretty well. I rented two and was quite impressed. Thing is, it was so godawful ugly that no one cared.

  • avatar
    bufguy

    I totally disagree with the original Seville bein a misstep. GM needed a smaller Cadillac and the car attracted many who would have spent the money on a Mercedes or other luxury European car. It was actually a well put together automobile. It’s body integrity was decent and survived northeast winters better than most of its contemporaries. Build quality was actually much better than its bigger siblings of 1975 and 1976. The 350 V-8 with fuel injection was smooth and reliable and style wise it was very attractive serving as the template for the fabulously successful 1977 B – bodies.

    • 0 avatar
      marc

      You’re dead on about the Seville. I drove a 1st gen with about 100,000 miles in 1988-89 (grandma’s hand-me-down). Sold it for a sweet little ’82 Corolla SR5 hatchback. But it was still rock solid when I sold it. However, there was no way I was gonna get in any 1980′s GM product as its replacement.

      115 comments so far, and I think only 2 of them agree with the original premise that the 1st gen Seville was a misstep. Now subsequent ones…..

      • 0 avatar
        28-cars-later

        Seville had only a few years which weren’t complete design or engineering disasters, maybe ’77-79 and ’92 only because of the 4.9 being somewhat not horrible, but electrically the ‘new Seville’ was always a bit iffy. I stopped paying attention to it altogether after the last of the FWDs in 2003.

  • avatar
    readallover

    The biggest misstep was the Generals` habit of reacting instead of being proactive. The Corvair was a reaction to the VW and to a lesser extent, the French and British small cars. The Vega, a reaction to the Japanese. The Seville, a reaction to the Germans. All rushed, under developed and inspired by accountants. On the other hand, my father bought a new 1980 Citation with the V-6 when the dealers could sell all of them twice over. He never had a problem the five years he had it.

  • avatar
    FloorIt

    Costliest Misstep = ruined reputation and not necessarily financial cost.
    1. Not making a 4 cylinder and small car from scratch – doing it right. Cutting V8′s in half to save money cost GM their small car reputation. Using components and platforms from mid-size or other cars to save money, thus producing mediocre at best cars.

    In 1981 a friend from out of town had a Toyota Celica as a rental. We usually thought lowly of Japanese cars, never having drove them. Well an evening of each of us thrashing the Celica changed our minds. It’s handling alone made us think twice comparing it to a friends Sunbird and another’s Pinto. One’s opinion summed it up – “Damn! This thing’s fun!” We all agreed and never even thought of saying that about any big 3 small cars then. Noticed later was even after our using the gas pedal as an on off switch it had only gone down to half a tank of gas. Also not having the reputation as a glorified Vega or exploding when hit.

  • avatar
    Joe McKinney

    So many of these bad GM cars were entry-level, or near-entry-level vehicles. There are a huge number of people whose first new car purchase/ownership experience was a Corvair, Vega, Citation, etc. In my case it was a 1996 Cavalier. How many of these buyers swore off GM products forver after owning one of these cars?

    This had a major impact on the fortunes of Pontiac, Olds, Buick and Cadillac. GM’s divisional structure was rooted in the idea that, over time, buyers would remain loyal to GM and gradually move up the divisional ladder from lower priced to higher priced cars. There was little chance of this happening when millions of young buyers began switching to imports and transplants after getting burned by a Chevy.

    • 0 avatar
      CJinSD

      OTOH, they pretty much showed their egalitarian side by putting disastrous gasoline V8s into Cadillacs starting in 1981 with the V8-6-4 and continuing right through the HTs and Northstars up until the end of V8 Cadillac engine production. Starting in 1978, they also managed to reverse the trend for diesel engines in US market luxury cars.

  • avatar
    Robert Schwartz

    Easy answer to this question. Eliminating the separateness of the divisions so that the same car could be badge engineered across four divisions was the first major mistake, and one that lead to most of the others.

  • avatar
    Dave M.

    1. The Vega sowed the seeds.
    2. The X cars sealed the deal.
    3. Zarella and branding shut the vault.

    Personally I thought the original Seville was brilliant – no way a commoner could tell it was a modified Nova, folks bought it in droves becuase it was right-sized, and I believe it was the highest price Caddy in the line up.

    Actually I would put it in the Win column with the ’77 Impala and ’58 Corvette.

  • avatar
    JLGOLDEN

    I beleive that no single product, in recent memory, has caused damage to GM’s reputation. But let’s talk about the RENTAL CAR exposure. Thousands of people experience a GM rental car every year. That’s a chance to set forth a ton of opionions, and it creates dinner conversation amongst people “…I rented the shittiest new Pontiac in Las Vegas…” In the last four years, I’ve rented an Aveo, an Aura twice, and a G6. During that time, I also rented a Jetta, Sentra, Titan, Caliber, and a couple of Camrys. If I didn’t know better, and I thought that these GM rentals were highly representative of that company’s products, I’d never set foot in one of their dealerships. Granted, some of these experinces date back to 2008-era cars. But opinions get set in place after three days of commuting.

  • avatar
    DenverMike

    How many times did GM think they could keep screwing us over and we’d happily keep coming back for more? The answer is, they never give 2 $h!Ts. And still don’t. It’s all about the right here, right now. How many fools are left to fool, Today?

    Even if high quality does ever happen, the damage is done an there are too many choices out there. This isn’t 1955 anymore.

    GM has near zero public trust and should consider themselves a new start-up. Kill the short term gains mentality and think like a sole propietor instead of a hit-n-run stockholder.

  • avatar
    Neb

    I love the topic of “how GM screwed up” because it is almost like a fractial. No matter what direction you go, the mistakes made are well nigh infinite.

  • avatar
    Gannet

    I agree with those who say is wasn’t really a vehicle issue, it was a culture and attitude issue.

    Even the much-maligned cars mentioned in the article weren’t bad designs – they were just badly executed. People got promoted for cost-cutting, not for good design.

    While it may be necessary for the Big Cheese at a major engineering corporation to be a bean counter, for success it has to be a bean counter with humility. One who recognizes that managing ain’t doing, and that the customers are paying for product, not your brilliant management. Unfortunately, such bean counters don’t make it to the upper ranks.

    ‘Tis nearly always so with companies started by engineers, after the founders pass on. For current examples, look at the troubles of Honda, Lotus, and Ferrari. While Billy Durant wasn’t an engineer, he was smart enough to know that it was the engineers who made the products people paid for.

    Vehicles didn’t kill GM, Tom “General Motors is not in the business of making cars. It is in the business of making money” Murphy and Roger “All our cars will be front wheel drive” Smith did.

    • 0 avatar
      outback_ute

      Another good example is the Aztek – the people developing the car new it was a turkey but blindly stick to “the system” where getting a program finished did not take into account whether it was done well

  • avatar
    priapism

    Saturn, without question. Not only were there the billions spend on Saturn itself (which never made any money) but the estrangement from other brands that happened when they were denied advancements because
    GM brass wanted to make sure Saturn had the first of everything. Chevy would have been a much more viable brand in the 90s if Saturn hadn’t had the monopoly on the new tech coming out of GM!

    • 0 avatar
      DaveDFW

      In the 1990′s, I remember reading in C&D a quote from a Chevrolet bigwig, complaining about Saturn being “allowed to operate at a loss,” when the other divisions were not.

      I believe the topic that brought this up was that the Saturn SL was receiving better reviews than Chevrolet’s small offerings.

  • avatar
    alluster

    I would say Saturn was the costliest misstep. I had the misfortune of driving an 02 SL1 for a couple of months in 2009. Had to be the absolute worst car ever built. Everything was falling apart. The handling and acceleration sucked, so did the brakes. The gas mileage was very good and it was cheap to buy and insure though.

    Killing the EV1 should rank pretty high too. If they had kept on with the development and gradually cut the costs down to Prius levels, by 2002 GM could have claimed fuel economy leadership which rubs off to models in other segments. Currently Toyota enjoys this perception even though save the prius, none of their cars/trucks/suvs are anymore fuel efficient then their competitors.

    All said, GM missteps post 2000 have actually insanely benefitted them. Without these missteps, GM wouldn’t have been on the death bed come 2008 and there wouldn’t have been a bankruptcy to get rid of all their debts, most pension obligations, purge a thousand dealers without getting sued and fire 20,000 union and white collar workers. If not for the missteps and the eventual bankruptcy caused by them, GM would be barely breaking even with high debt, UAW pensions and a bloated dealer network. There weren’t going to be record profits or any money left for R&D to stay competitive.

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424053111903454504576487822808431928.html

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Motors_Chapter_11_reorganization

    • 0 avatar
      docrock

      Roger Smith: “Lets build a brand new brand. We will bring to bare all of our engineering and accounting acumen to design, manufacture and market a desirable, affordable and practical small car.

      Board of Directors: Great idea, Boss!

      Roger Smith: But we will keep all of the bad management techniques, cost cutting and general disregard for the car buying public that we have perfected over the last 65 years.

      Board of Directors: Great idea, Boss!

      Roger Smith: Will keep doing the same thing over and over and over again and hope for a different outcome.

      Board of Directors: Great idea, Boss!

      Roger Smith: Okay then, its agreed – lets get out there drive this company into the ground, one billion dollars at a time!

  • avatar
    jbltg

    Such a vast waste of financial and technical resources. This is what happens when an automobile company is effectively run by the souless drones in accounting, with their short-term, myopic focus.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    As others have said, the bean counters were the death of GM.

    I could write a long list of misteps from the cheapening of Cadillac, diesel Buick engines, but what was the final nail in the coffin? What was it that just turned the masses against GM and that was it, the end.

    I would have to say the crushing of the EV1s along with the launch of Hummer as a brand was a massive misstep. Never mind the engineering issue with the batteries in the EV1 (they were completely incapable of functioning in cold weather). Just as Toyota gave up on their RAV4 electrics (for similar reasons, the battery technology wasn’t baked) GM should have never crushed the cars when the outcry started. They were right to stop throwing money down the black hole. One of GMs biggest faults is releasing technology not baked (4-6-8 Cadillacs probably the biggest example – the technology wasn’t there to make it work, today Displacement on Demand is common place and GM was first to bring it back in 2005) and they would have to throw a ton of money at the EV1 to make it viable.

    But then Hummer was born. And suddenly GM because the poster child of everything evil with the automotive world, connected with big oil and by proxy evil terrorists, and part of a vast conspiracy to keep the United States addicted to oil by building nothing but trucks and massive SUVs.

    When gasoline prices spiked, GM was utterly dependent on fullsize truck and body on frame SUV sales and had crap for small car offerings. The dated W-Bodies with the 3.8L V6 were about as fuel efficient as it got wrapped in a somewhat reliable, liveable package – but the beancounters had made sure that every corner possible was cut. But 20/30 MPG for a V6 that bowed at the altar of torque was not shabby for the start of the 21st century (and actually not horrible even by today’s standards if hobbled by a 4-speed).

    By then it was done. GM was the anti-Christ of car companies, they offered nothing “green” when green was hot, and were anti-green because they had crushed up those EV1s.

    Had they followed what Toyota did (well actually, Toyota did crush a lot of their RAV4 electrics, they bowed only after seeing the Hell GM was going through for their decision) and said, fine, keep ‘em, when the warranty expires you’re on your own – the backlash might not have been a swift and severe.

    It was a long disastrous decline from Roger & Me to Who Killed the Electric Car and everything in between.

    • 0 avatar
      ajla

      +1 to all of that.

    • 0 avatar
      SC5door

      I’m reading that Chrysler’s MDS on the 5.7 was available before DOD from GM.

      • 0 avatar
        APaGttH

        You are correct. Chrysler introduced MDS in late 2004 in four 2005 model year vehicles when equipped with the 5.7L V8. GMs first DoD (now called AFM) offering was in showrooms in March of 2005 on the LS4 engine in the Pontiac Grand Prix GXP, followed quickly by the Impala SS, and in fullsize 1/4 ton pickup truck offerings.

    • 0 avatar
      Russycle

      EV1s used two different types of batteries. The early version used lead-acid, which performed poorly in the cold. The NiMH batteries used in later models weren’t so bad.

      Toyota quit making electric Rav4s because GM sold their NiMH battery patents to Chevron, who, surprisingly, weren’t interested in allowing Toyota to continue to use the technology under lease.

    • 0 avatar
      Charliej

      Another way to look at it is capitalism killed GM. The market demands results today, tomorrow doesn’t count. To satisfy the market, research and development is cut, parts are cheapened, rust proofing is left off, insulation is left out. Anything to save money now and make the stock look good. That is how GM was managed for the last half century, and why they suffered a bankruptcy. If you look at all American business, you will see the markets demand for instant results destroying businesses.

  • avatar
    gslippy

    “…the Citation turned out to be a fundamentally terrible car that alienated the remaining customers that hadn’t already been scared away by the Vega. Chrysler was able to solve the puzzle with their K Cars and Ford hung on long enough to build the Taurus, but GM spent the decade of the 1980s taking repeated tire-iron blows to the face from Japanese competition.”

    This pretty well sums it up.

    But someone above added the Olds V8 diesel. This engine is the reason Americans don’t buy diesels.

    • 0 avatar
      SC5door

      Oh please.

      People don’t buy diesel here is because of the lack of stations that carry it. I can buy gasoline at 4 different stations within a few miles of my house. Diesel? Need to drive clear across town.

      People associate diesel with smelly large trucks and truck stops.

    • 0 avatar
      DC Bruce

      In many parts of the US (including where I live), diesel is priced at or above premium gasoline. I think, nationally, diesel is more expensive than regular. So, that negates a lot of fuel economy advantages of the engines. That’s why, I believe, US buyers in search of maximum fuel economy go hybrid gasoline.

      Plus, as you say, people’s bad experiences with dieselized gasoline engines from GM and VAG in the 1980s (joe sixpack could never afford the bulletproof Mercedes diesels of the 1980s as new cars), the smelly fuel that doesn’t wash off well and the formerly smelly exhaust.

    • 0 avatar
      JREwing

      The ’80′s GM diesels were atrociously bad, no doubt about it. The shame is that, designed properly, they were perfect for the large sedans they were going in. They didn’t have to be quick, but they absolutely needed to be good. Bean counters to the ruin once again.

  • avatar
    mechimike

    It’s interesting that NO ONE here has yet mentioned the Corvair. I’m a buff of Corvair history, to me it really represents the disastrous fight between GM’s engineers and their marketing people and bean counters. The Corvair, from the beginning, was a superbly engineered automobile. I have on my hard drive a 1960 SAE paper presented by the Chevrolet engineers about the Corvair, and the work they did was second to none. If the Corvair that got built was the one the engineers had designed, we’d be citing the Corvair as one of the greatest cars ever built, and we might even be driving modern-day Corvairs.

    Alas, it was not to be. GM fought tooth and nail to take every dime they could out of that car, because the upfront tooling expenses were so high- GM had never built a car like the Corvair before, so you can imagine that swallowing that cost was a big deal for them. Huge, in fact- it just goes to show you how much of a threat VW and the other import compacts were perceived as that GM ever green-lighted the Corvair. But they cut corners, the first cars were prone to snap-oversteer, exhaust leaks (a big problem when the exhaust is part of the heating system) and no better safety than any other GM car.

    The 1965 restyle went more than skin deep- the entire suspension was different and these “late model” ‘vairs were significant improvements over the originals. But then suddenly everyone wanted a Mustang (a far inferior car, by the way, but it just goes to show you how much marketing sells a car more than substance does) and Mr. Nader’s book – which, to be fair, lambasted many cars other than the Corvair, but the Corvair was the subject of the first chapter- did irreparable harm. The ironic thing there is that Nader, supposedly a champion of the working class, helped spearhead the decline of the American automobile industry with his book!

    The Corvair was really dead by 1967, but GM kept churning out models for 2 more years, pretty much to spite Nader and show everyone how great the car was. And it was…but by then no one cared.

    Full disclosure: I own several Corvairs, both “Earlies” and “Lates”.

    • 0 avatar
      Ryoku75

      In my book the later Corvairs don’t seem to be that bad as cars, but how on earth are they “inferior” to the Mustang? A car that uses a far more practical and managable drive train lay-out.

      If the Corvair hadn’t been goofed, we’d be seeing Daewoods with “Chevy Corvair” badging on them and an FF lay-out.

      The Corvair did introduce turbocharging though, something that you can even find on regular grocery getters these days.

      • 0 avatar
        CJinSD

        The 1962 Oldsmobile Cutlass Turbo Jetfire beat the Corvair turbos to production.

      • 0 avatar
        Moparman426W

        Back in 1974 there was a family that lived up the street from us, their last name was Nichols, they had 3 little girls that came down and played with my sisters. They owned a 68 or 9 Corvair. While on vacation in PA they stopped for gas, and Mr. Nichols toppd off the front mounted fuel tank. A couple of miles after leaving the gas station they got into a head on collision with a police cruiser that was on an emergency call. The Corvair erupted into flames, wiping the entire family out in an instant.

    • 0 avatar
      tiredoldmechanic

      Full disclosure: I love late Corvairs, and I want one bad. If I find a nice 4 carb Corsa nearby this summer I’ll probably buy it. So I may be a bit biased. But I really don’t see the Corvair as anywhere near as damaging as the Citation. It was always kind of a sideline for Chevy, and it was almost more of a misunderstanding than a misstep. They had thier problems for sure, but I don’t think they alienated a whole generation of customers the way the Citation and subsequent related cars did.

    • 0 avatar
      solracer

      I”m glad you mentioned that part of the problem with Nader’s book is that the Corvair was chapter 1 and frankly few reviewers seemed to make it all they way through the book. If Nader had switched chapter 1 and chapter 8 which rips the Mustang almost as bad we’d be driving 8th generation Corvairs these days and the Mustang would have been relegated to the dustbin of history. I’m not saying that GM and the auto industry didn’t need some tough love in the 1960′s, they did, but it’s a shame the Corvair needed to die in the process.

    • 0 avatar
      Geekcarlover

      From my memories of Delorian’s On A Clear Day You Can See General Motors, the marketing/ad guys won out. It couldn’t compete with VW on price so they pushed the image of an American Porsche.

  • avatar
    Conslaw

    It’s hard to argue with the general crappiness of the Citation. GM has proven repeatedly that it can make good cars. It can make light cars. It can’t make good, light cars, at least not at a low price. E-assist may go down as one of the biggest blunders. A Malibu with e-assist may end up 500 lbs. heavier than an Altima with the same mpg. The Altima will be a lot cheaper, faster, and will have a much larger trunk.

  • avatar
    kvndoom

    I don’t know… the GM diesels did more far-reaching harm than anything. They turned an entire nation against a specific type of engine, and almost 30 years later that perception still hasn’t changed, as only niche German makers even dare to tread those waters.

    • 0 avatar
      APaGttH

      And that’s why the diesel Chevy Cruze is coming in a few more months???

      • 0 avatar
        kvndoom

        Yes, and so is the Skyactive-D cars, and maybe even a diesel Ram 1500…

        But then again, so was the diesel TSX…

        When these cars are actually on the lots, then I’ll believe, but not a minute sooner. Not like a company hasn’t changed its mind about releasing something. I’ve still got my wager on the ubiquitous “due to market research…” announcement. Guess we’ll see here soon?

        And yes, what happened 30 years ago is still relevant. Plenty of people alive then are alive now, and when I had my Golf TDI I heard it all the time- “aren’t those smoky and noisy and break down?” I still hear it from people to this day. Those memories aren’t gone, and they do get passed on as horror stories to younger generations. I suppose ancient Greyhound buses and dump trucks belching black clouds on the highway don’t help advance the fact that the technology has advanced considerably.

        Look beyond the journalist/enthusiast bubble and remember that the average consumer thinks “hybrid” automatically when considering a high MPG vehicle. There are diesel engines that could smoke a Prius (pun intended) in MPG and performance, so why isn’t the USA asking for those?

    • 0 avatar
      SC5door

      I don’t see how what happened 30+ years ago is influencing buyers now.

      You have a complete lack of infrastructure for diesel other than truck stops and the occasional station that may carry it.

      Diesel is priced higher than gasoline. Yes diesel engines may get better mileage in the long run but the price on the sign is what consumers are looking at.

      Emission standards keep some manufacturers at bay. Jeep brings us the Grand Cherokee diesel and then yanks it back due to tighter standards.

      Yes the GM diesel was a major screw up, but the only place you hear people talking about it is in these “memory lane” posts.

      • 0 avatar
        CJinSD

        None-the-less, the Oldsmobile diesels did kill an existing market for diesel cars in the US. Something like 90% of Mercedes-Benz US sales were diesel powered thirty years ago. Most brands were selling or scrambling to sell diesel cars. Diesel pumps were common, which I can tell you from having a Mercedes 240D as my daily driver in the ’80s and taking numerous road trips. I only went to truck stops when they had giant signs advertising diesel for $0.89 a gallon. To be fair, the other big selling diesel of the day was the VW Rabbit, and plenty of people were burned by them as well.

      • 0 avatar
        nikita

        Complete lack of infrastructure? CNG has that, so does electric for public charging stations, or worse H2. Diesel is everywhere due to the large number of diesel pickup trucks sold in the last 20 years or so. Its also about $3.89 while regular gasoline is $4.15 (Los Angeles) where about one in three stations carry it.

      • 0 avatar
        rampriscort

        Nikita,
        Yes, CNG and electric are worse for access, but diesel is far from ubiquitous here in central Virginia. This is farm/horse country and still only about a quarter of the stations carry diesel. And here in Virginia, diesel is considerably more expensive. Right now regular gas is about $3.30 and diesel is $3.60. That’s a significant dent in the diesel’s mpg superiority.

        Diesel’s other disadvantage is maintenance cost. We have two diesels at work and every problem is $500 minimum. We’ve sunk enough into repairs on that damn pickup (a GMC, by the way, in the spirit of the original article) to buy gas for several years.

  • avatar
    Towncar

    All the above are defensible points, although you could argue about some of the individual models & marketing decisions. But they all seem to me to be symptoms and not causes.

    Obsessive cost-cutting is the common denominator in virtually every fail identified, and to get right down to the root cause of that habit, don’t we need to look to the UAW?

    Not that I want to do any union-bashing here–they are in business like everybody else and can’t be blamed for taking what they can get. The point I want to make is more about management.

    I think there was a point, maybe in the 70′s when the oil shock upended the market and the imports started to surge, when the reigning VP for Labor Relations should have had some projections run on the corporate mainframe, looked over those greenbar printouts, and said “Whoa! If these wage/benefit trends continue, we’re Studebaker!”

    And in a really functional operation, that information would have gone up the chain to the CEO, who would have said to the Board, “Yikes, boys, we gotta hang tough on this, or we’re sunk.” And the board would have so voted and, yes, there would have been a big strike and a big brouhaha and some big losses in the short term. But the organization could have come out of it much leaner and fitter to meet the challenges coming up in the ’80s and later, and today’s new UAW hires might not be saddled with the two-tier wage and there might well be a lot more of them.

    But it was always easier for management, due to inertia and myopia, just to pass the costs along to the buyers and thrift out all the little bits like fender liners and brake proportioning valves that nobody would notice, and so that’s what they kept doing until the whole system just became so ramshackle that it collapsed.

    And that, I would argue, is what ultimately “caused the most damage to the company’s bottom line and/or image.”

  • avatar
    Truckducken

    Well, a lot of folks mention poor quality as being GM Failure Number One. I have to agree. But that’s pretty superficial. Nobody builds a perfect car. What is it about GM that made execution and reliability so consistently inferior to other makers for so many decades, despite a great balance sheet (until it wasn’t) and tremendous engineering talent and resources? Some blame the bean counters, some blame ‘culture’, some blame the UAW, some blame Roger Smith, and so on.

    My personal theory is that the beancounters are indeed the culprits. When the trend toward smaller cars took hold, GM’s financial braintrust seems to have decided that, if they were going to take in less cash per vehicle, then by golly, they’d make sure they sold more vehicles by having the ones they sold fail as quickly as possible. [Don\'t believe it? From the horse\'s mouth: http://tinyurl.com/56wnfx .] This simplistic calculus only works in the absence of competition, of course, and despite the jingoism of GM and its congressional cronies over the past few decades, the average buyer long ago tired of GM’s lousy value proposition and moved on for good.

    So, how about a list of top design/engineering issues (or features, if you’re a beancounter) that let to the irrelevancy of GM? I will nominate, in no particular order:
    - 3.8 intake gasket
    - gen 1 electronic carburetors
    - taking bearings out of the 350
    - pot metal camshafts
    - insultingly lame badge engineering
    - paint sans primer
    - cooling designs of Vega and Fiero (tie)
    - the A200 ‘tranny’
    - use of velour seats for a good decade after every other maker realized it went out of style
    - lack of longevity of electrical bits like windows, locks, IP’s
    - five-year headliners
    - Dexcool
    - as others suggest, the 350 diesel atrocity

    Despite owning multiple Chevies over the years, I’ve managed to avoid a lot of GM mistakes, so I am sure the B&B can add to this list!

  • avatar
    rokop

    Any company replacing a POS like the Vega with an even greater POS like the Monza is bound to have problems.
    How about the Cimarron? The Olds diesel? Seville? Saturn? Chevette? Cobalt? Geo Metro? Aveo? Fiero? Solstice? On and on, disasters all.
    So much garbage, how could GM survive?

  • avatar
    55_wrench

    +1,Mechimike.
    I’ve ownned lots of Corvairs, early and late and read SAE papers on them too. I drove nothing but ‘vairs for about 15 years.

    I also owned:
    1980 Omega
    1973 LeMans wagon
    1979 Bonneville
    1984 Olds 98
    2001 LeSabre

    Reliability was all over the map. So was likeability.

    Omega, fun to drive, awful in all other respects. Most Hated of any car I owned. Something that broke so often should have been easy to work on. But it wasn’t.

    LeMans: almost couldn’t kill it. Really fast (400CID) when in tune. Hauled 600 lbs of sheetrock home on the roof rack one night. Served us well for 8 years. Tranny died at 175K, time to let go.

    Bonneville, 2 dr with an olds 350 and bucket seats and a console. Big-car fun too, and reliable. Terminal A pillar rust hastened its demise. 144K.

    Olds 98: reliable, a bit like driving your sofa. Sleep-inducing.

    LeSabre: Second most hated car I ever owned. I’ve posted why before on this forum, no need to go there again.

    With that said, it was a shame GM let the Corvair die. It was the most fun to drive (at least my ’65′s) of any of the GM stable I owned. With some re-engineering they could have kept it as a really fun niche car, sort of like an RX-8 and they could have succesfully addressed the safety issues.

    I gave up on GM after the Lesabre. After seeing just how horribly a car could be designed and built, it showed they never learned from their mistakes. Add to that the way they treated their dealers (check out the site written by the owner of Signer Buick in Newark, CA, donsigner.com)during the last meltdown, it’s clear I can spend my money better elsewhere.

    • 0 avatar
      DC Bruce

      Regarding the continuation of Corvair, that eventually would have required the elimination of air cooling, for the same reasons that Porsche was forced to abandon air cooling. Also, air conditioning for a rear, air-cooled engine is not so simple, either. In the heyday of the Corvair, I would guess that air conditioning penetration in the car market nationally was probably less than 50%. More in obviously hot places like Texas; less in New England and the Pacific Coast.

      And you know how much water cooled, rear-engine Porsche’s cost.

    • 0 avatar
      Ryoku75

      I see Lesabres still on the road a bit, why do people buy these things?

      I don’t doubt that their rubbish, but where did you make your post on your 2001 model?

    • 0 avatar
      28-cars-later

      I just went through the extensively documented story of Signer Buick/Cadillac on donsigner.com. My God, is all I can say. I might be turned off to GM from now on, how a billion dollar corporation could turn something as stupid as a local real estate deal into a two decade vendetta against a private citizen and member of their own dealer network is simply bizarre.

      Mr. Signer sums up GM better than I could:

      To summarize my opinion as simply as possible, I believe that once GM makes a decision, it must forever defend that decision even if it later realizes it is wrong, and regardless of the damage to others and itself created by its refusal to admit a mistake. Industry observers have long criticized GM’s arrogant corporate culture that includes perceived infallibility, but have probably been unaware of the vicious methods GM is capable of using in defending those decisions.

  • avatar
    Ryoku75

    Their whole venture into electric cars has cost GM a bit of time and money, and what we end up with 40-something years after the electric GM van is the Chevy Volt, which like almost every GM its really something else with a Chevy badge on it (its a Daewood), though its main issue would be the occaisional fires thanks to GM cost-cutting a safety bit to protect the battery.

    After driving and looking at several GMs myself, their numerous cost-cutting tricks don’t help keep things afloat, but their badge-frenzies have always been an issue. How can you trust a company that constantly slaps ts badges on other cars?

  • avatar
    rdeiriar

    I don’t live in the US so i have not experienced some of GM’s worst, however i think i can add a noteworthy engineering mistake, namely GM is the only car manufacturer to have built engines with alloy blocks and cast iron heads. The first one was the disastrous Vega OHC four, the second one was the only slightly less disastrous Cadillac HT4100 V8.

    I’ve never found a convincing explanation for this choice of materials, the dissimilar expansion of the block and the head made gasket failure almost a certainty; yet there seems to be no advantage whatsoever.

  • avatar
    tiredoldmechanic

    The Citation was by far the costliest misstep. Most of the other missteps were secondary or “niche” market cars. The Citation was THE mainstream GM product for the 80s. Anyone who was around at the time will remember the hype and expectations generated around these cars. My Dad worked at the local Chev-Olds emporium at the time, and they were primed to expect the answer to all problems automotive and then some. And that’s how they sold them. Waiting lists, full sticker plus, the whole deal.
    Fast forward about 18 months. Warranty problems, irate customers, damaged reputations, the whole deal. And it only got worse. The Vega was a poison chalice. The Citation poisoned the whole well.
    It also sold a lot of ’82 Accords and the rest is history.

  • avatar
    "scarey"

    I wonder if anyone will scroll this far down and read this one. GM’s costliest blunder was probably buying then unbuying Fiat. Just think- they could have bought Chrysler.

  • avatar
    "scarey"

    I wonder if anyone will scroll this far down and read this one. GM’s costliest blunder was probably buying then unbuying Fiat. Just think- they could have pwned Chrysler.
    Actually, you could say that MBAs and “professional managers” killed GM.
    GM forgot that it was the automobile that made GM, not the other way around.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    GM’s biggest misstep? Except Cadillac,Corvette, Camaro, and trucks/suvs; no one and I mean no one under 50 would consider any other of GM’s products. There is no alternative to the Corvette,the Camaro has a few competitors, and the rest? Boatloads of competition.At least GM products used to be cheap to fix when they inevitably broke. Now GM has started gouging on parts. A pox on the Ren Cen.

  • avatar
    daveainchina

    the nail in the coffin to me was the Chevy Chevette, what a horrible bastardization of the Corvette name.

    You covered most everything else in your article except the eurosports.

  • avatar
    PaulVincent

    Many, many excellent and thoughtful answers. This has to be one of the top threads ever.

  • avatar

    where’s Dr Olds the defender? did GM PR decide to sit this one out?

  • avatar
    "scarey"

    Greetings, Marcelo. Yes, the money was most likely well spent, but did not benefit GM. Oh well, GM really committed suicide by management. C’est la vie. Very few American corporate execs in any industry have the talent and skill that their forebears had. They all think that they are Jack Welsh, who was over-rated anyway.

  • avatar
    el scotto

    ajla- US domestic market, my mistake, myopic Yank here; Buickman, remember when it seemed like everyone knew someone who had an Olds Cutlass in one of it’s 328 different configurations? Where did those customers go? Yes, I’m a fanboi of the Ciera

  • avatar
    acuraandy

    Epsilon platform; specifically, Pontiac G6/Chev Malishit.

  • avatar
    mburm201

    I agree with most of what’s been posted, although I am a fan of the ’76 Seville and even owned a ’78. One thing I haven’t seen mentioned is that GM was just not efficient. Their labor costs, work rules, pension and health costs, heavy bureaucracy etc, made them a high cost producer. They countered that by in many cases providing attractive, flashy designs that appealed to people, then cutting costs by decontenting, using cheap interior materials, using outdated engines and transmissions, etc. They were often outclassed by the Japanese and Germans because they were essentially fighting with one hand tied behind their backs. Combine miserable execution failures like the 350 diesel, 4100 V8, and Citation, with stratgic failures like downsizing too late in the 80′s and upsizing too much in the 90′s, and we witnessed one of the longest death spirals in history.

  • avatar
    Glen.H

    I’m going for the X-car as well, but it is symptomatic of corporate wide problems. If the X-car had been the sole issue GM would probably been able to bury it like the Corvair. Unfortunatly it was just one of a whole suite of not-quite-right programmes around that time. Think of the poorly executed diesel V8, Cadillac’s dodgy 4100 engine and V4-6-8, and the lacklustre J-cars. Another was the misplaced Saturn, a car that promised so much and delivered so little, so late, while duplicating existing product. And that isn’t even factoring in problems in its overseas divisions like Holden….

    • 0 avatar
      outback_ute

      To elaborate, Holden downsized to the V-car (Commmodore) as a reaction to the fuel crises, but they carried over the drivelines so the efficiency wasn’t there and they lost market leadership. The J-car didn’t go well here either and the T-car Gemini was coming to the end of its time. Holden almost went bankrupt and needed to be bailed out by GM, $780m in 1986.

  • avatar
    luvmyv8

    While this wasn’t GM’s biggest mistake, this mistake had huge rammifications and certainly helped put GM where it is now.

    Discontinuing the Caprice. Now to be sure, it wasn’t a huge retail seller (though it had it’s fans and of course you had the last real Impala SS) but it was a big fleet seller, think about this: how many black and white Crown Victorias do you see everyday? Chevrolet threw away that market share and gave the police car/taxi market to Ford. The Caprice back then was superior to the Crown Vic (believe me it’s hard typing this as I am a Ford guy and a rabid Panther fan) but the Caprice considerably blew the Ford away. With the LT1, the Caprice would fly over 140 MPH, hit 0-60 faster then you expect and made the Mustang SSP police car obsolete. It had great brakes too. The Caprice was so loved that many precincts held onto their cars longer then usual and even some had their Caprices literally refurbished rather then going with the Ford. Even to this day, you’ll occasionally still see a Caprice still in police service, even 16 years after the fact. That, or you’ll see them as daily drivers, Impala SS clones or security cars. After they axed the Caprice, GM cynically replaced it with a Lumina police package, which failed and only served to send police departments running to Ford. The Lumina was a joke.

    Here’s the thing though this was worse then throwing away a lucrative market; the factory that built the Caprice (I want to say Arlington Texas?) was converted to produce SUV’s and pickups. We can see how that strategy eventually worked for GM.

    • 0 avatar
      28-cars-later

      Correct it was Arlington. I agree with your statements but without investment Caprice would have just become what the Panther is today, a long in the tooth platform some feel is embarrassing for the company.

      I do wish though there would have been a way to keep Caprice going in an idled plant for limited fleet production (20K-30K units), the same as many hoped Ford would keep the Panther going beyond 2011. Fleet market may not be sexy but its guaranteed profit.

  • avatar
    bill mcgee

    I would have to agree that the X=car and the Saturn were the biggest missteps . I owned a 1994 Saturn wagon with the base engine and the stick . For a GM car of this era it was pretty reliable and got pretty good mileage but the front seats were awful -thinly padded and worse than any car I ever owned- and the plastic body was a total rattletrap . I disagree about the first-gen Seville . Alot of my aunts and uncles who had never owned Cadillacs and thought they were too glitzy bought the late seventies Sevilles ( nobody bought the later bustleback version ) . I think a lot of GMs problems were due to cost- cutting , particularly in the execution .All those eighties cars where the crappy headliner would fall down and the vinyl filler between the 5-mph bumpers and the bodies that would crack and rot out were as much to blame as the mechanical problems .

  • avatar
    nrd515

    Our family was pretty much all GM and Mopar after the series of Ford/Lincoln disasters my dad had starting in 1959. I don’t remember what model it was, but we have a picture of my dad putting water into the radiator of it for the umpteenth time. It was a very odd corroded copper green color. He replaced it with a Galaxy 500, which blew head gaskets and overheated constantly, as did his ’63 TBird, the car that finally got him cured of Ford. The GM first car I remember us having was my mom’s ’64 Caddy Sedan DeVille. Baby blue with a white top, it was basically perfect. My mom loved it. We didn’t keep cars long, and it was replaced with a ’67 almost identical black one that wasn’t too good. We didn’t have it long at all. My mom wanted it gone almost from day one when it stranded us one night when it was barely a month or so old. We knew two families who had Corvairs and they both liked them a lot. I rode in one about 2-3 times a month, and while it was small, it seemed ok, a huge difference from riding in our family battlecruisers, that’s for sure.

    I don’t think the Corvair was any real factor in GM’s decline. The first real train wreck was the Vega. At that point, the GM A Body cars were about the best out there, period, and in our neighborhood, the Vegas sold like “hotcakes”. There were at least a dozen of them in our neighborhood alone. It didn’t take long for the problems to appear. The woman across the street bought a blue one, it was her first new car. It matched the smoke that poured out of it almost perfectly. She stuck with Chevy though and a few years later, replaced the blue car with an orange Vega with the “Iron Duke”. That car stayed around for years, to the point it fell apart from rust in the late ’80′s.

    The second train wreck, and the worst one, was the X cars. Some of the same people who had been burned by the Vega got burned by the X cars and that was the tipping point, IMO, most of them were gone well before they would paid for. One diehard Chevy guy kept his forever though. It just became worse and worse looking as time went on, and it finally, at about age 20, disappeared one day, replaced with an Olds Bravada that he’s still driving.

    The third hit wasn’t just one thing, it was a continuation of mistakes, mostly by allowing bean counters to have too much power. Between the Fiero, the Aztek, the diesel fiasco, the 4-6-8 mess, etc, it was too much to really recover from. GM’s crazy pattern of fixing a vehicle’s issues and then killing it a year or so later didn’t help things. A friend’s sister has a last year Fiero, and it’s been a great car, a lot of fun, and pretty much trouble free.

    When GM’s engineers have their way, great things can happen, the LS engines are the best example. A friend of mine was looking for a “rebuildable” engine for his restoration project recently and bought a 6.0 with about 150,000 miles on it. Expecting it to show a lot of wear, he was shocked when he took off the heads and saw that not only was it in better shape than he expected, it showed hardly any wear at all! The bearings all looked great and were still within specs for a new engine. When it was all finished, he put eight new exhaust valves (4 were burned a little)in it, along with valve springs, a cam and lifers, and a timing chain. A “pine cone” hone job and piston rings made it complete and it’s been running for quite a while now, perfectly. He paid like $200 for it.

    • 0 avatar
      28-cars-later

      I think Boeing suffers from the same problems. From what I have read most of their successful designs, which date from the mid sixties (737) to the early seventies (747 767), came about when the executives were ex-engineers and understood the company’s products. If you look at the products developed since then, they have been fraught with issues on launch (757, 777 to a lesser extent) and more recently production issues with the 787.

      When engineers lead, customers, and ultimately the company wins.

  • avatar
    solracer

    In the long history of the company I think GM’s biggest misstep was none of the vehicles from the 70′s and 80′s that we know and dispise so well but a mostly unknown vehicle from the 1920′s, the 1923 “Copper-cooled” Chevrolet. Charles Kettering designed a supposedly cheaper 4-cylinder air-cooled engine as a way for Chevrolet to compete with the Model T and an associated 6-cylinder for fellow GM marque Oakland (later Pontiac). The result was absolute failure, Oakland refused to use the 6-cyl engine and while Chevrolet built roughly 700 of the 4-cyl version they were a sales and maintenance disaster. Only 300 left the factory and of those only 100 made it into the hands of owners. GM scrapped all of the unsold cars and later bought back all but two of those sold and loaded them onto a barge and dumped them in Lake Erie. They only two left are touring sold to a farmer who loved his and a coupe, sold to of all people Henry Ford, which is in the Ford museum. GM eventually recovered from this misstep but a lot of time, money and engineering effort went into it at a time when Ford was dominating the auto industry. I also think that Oakland’s refusal to follow GM’s management resulted in the divisions loosing much of their autonomy later on but that’s just speculation on my part.

    http://rad_davis.sent.com/cococo4.html

    • 0 avatar
      Pig_Iron

      Thanks for bringing up the Copper-Cooled. I would mention the Chevrolet Cadet misstep as well. Not to mention the damnation for the National City Lines. GM never missteps by mistake – it’s always strategic.

  • avatar
    mazder3

    While not the costliest, let’s add Geo/Passport/Asuna to the pile. “People won’t buy our brands so let’s create a whole new brand to sell second-tier Japanese brand cars.”

  • avatar

    For me it’s the X-cars by a mile. Rushed to market, under-developed, low-tech, poorly built; going from the darling of the wait list to the incentive queen in 4 years is a mark that will stand forever.

    I sold Hondas for a brief stint after college in 1984 and I had a customer who was dithering, dithering – Civic wagon or Chevy Celebrity (the A-body successor to the Citation)? I did a walk-around (actually a reverse walk-around) pointing out the flaws on the Celebrity for the customer – crappy panel fits, disk brakes, a carburetor, flabby seats, pushrods, thin paint, it went on. They had been indoctrinated by the Big Three – bigger had to be better, didn’t it? GM – far more than the others – coasted on this idea for decades. Anything smaller than a Caprice was considered a detour until a “good” car could be bought – a “good” GM car that weighed at least 3,000 pounds, had a low-tech V-8, and was big enough to park a Civic inside of, or better, run the interloper over, with. And the crappy small cars from Detroit contained every, single bit of this disdain for a long, long time.

    When I was growing up, much was made of the fact that about 35% of California residents had never owned a GM car. Jump ahead 20 years and it’s the same, with one small difference – 35% of California residents had never ridden in or driven a GM car.

    Also overlooked by the commenters so far is the headlong rush to FWD in the late-‘70s products by GM. BMW/Mercedes/Lexus/Infiniti realized that rear drive was a big part of the “feel” of a premium car and have never deviated. It’s taken GM 30 years to recover from their mis-perception of FWD as high-tech. Imagine the hot rods that GM could have made over the years with a competent small, RWD chassis. I’m thinking of a car like the E30 BMW with a light, updated small-block Chevy. Not one of us could mention “pushrods” without getting booed off the forum here, and deservedly so!

    Finally – the B-757 is not a bean-counter airplane. With 6 or 7 degrees more sweep in the wings it’d still being made today. (The shallow sweep of the wing limits it to about Mach 0.83.) By some measures the 757 is the safest means of travel ever devised – hardly a failure. If oil cost what it cost in 1980, until 2000, the 757 might be the best-selling single-aisle airplane, ever. But oil became less expensive than capital for a decade and that was that. The 757 will likely fly economically for another 40 years, by which time the youngest one will be 50 years old. I wish I could fail like this!

  • avatar
    Volt 230

    X cars were responsible for the surge of the Japanese brands at the cost of the Americans, I remember reading gobs of articles on how good these cars were going to be, how different and innovative they were and how you just had to have one, well, I ordered one Skylark, (liked the dash) waited 6 months for the thing to come in and right off the bat I recall some neighbor pointing out to another one how misaligned the trunk lid was, I tried to make the best of it, finally got rid of it at a big loss because of overheating issues that were never resolved.

  • avatar
    jpolicke

    Commenters to TTAC have repeatedly mocked buyers who robotically trade in their Camrys for new ones without ever cross-shopping the competition. These people are described as sheep for committing the offense of sticking with a brand that’s “boring”, “dull”, and “not fun to drive” simply because it is reliable and well made and that’s good enough for them.

    We all know of people who got burned by a Vega, but then when they had the misfortune of trading for a Chevette or an X-car or a J-car, THEN they decided they had enough of GM. Or maybe they still drive a GM today. This blind loyalty proves that yes, you can fool some of the people all of the time, and if you wrap the American flag around your garbage you can actually get people to pay to haul it away for you. As long as you have enough indoctrinated sheep programmed to “Buy American” no matter what (while maintaining a carefully crafted definition of what qualifies as such) you’ll stay in business. And, when too many people stop buying your BS, you and your union accomplices can go cry to the Government and extort a bailout.

  • avatar
    Nick

    The GM10 program. The patient was already non-responsive at scene, then the ambulance got lost and took 5 years to take the patient to the wrong hospital.

  • avatar
    solracer

    Here’s one more GM snafu, in the 1970s Chevrolet decided to build an upmarket version of the Vega with a rotary engine called the Chaparral after the race car. Things quickly went downhill when GM wasn’t willing to pay $1.50 a car to Jim Hall for the rights to the name and the RC-206 rotary engine was found to have apex seal issues when turned for EPA and for higher MPG. So barely 6 months from the car’s release date that had no engine and no name for the car. To solve the name problem they decided to steal the Monza name from the Corvair and you tell how last-minute everything was by the fact the Monza came with 1964 Corvair 500 hubcaps with the Corvair’s emblem on them. A decision was made to use the Vega’s engine but as that had only 73hp an optional V-8 was offered as well. Problem is the V-8 required a shoehorn to fit and when it came time for the 15,000 mile service it was discovered that the #7 spark plug could not be removed without partially removing the engine! A special wrench and some hammering on the firewall later solved the spark plug problem but that and the Vega’s lousy engine made the Monza into something far different than the sleek rotary-engine car intended.

  • avatar
    namesakeone

    The Vega could never have been the car that “kicked the invading hordes of Japanese subcompacts out of the country.” That wasn’t its purpose. According to Brock Yates’ “The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry’ (approximately 1983), the Vega (and Ford Pinto) were actually designed to tell the country that small cars, by their very nature–imported and domestic–were cheap, impractical, generally useless cars, and that you, the consumer and car buyer, would be much better served by a nice, full sized Impala or mid sized Chevelle–secondhand if absolutely necessary. Once the import threat was eliminated, the Big Three could go on to their God-given mandate of delivering six-passenger sedans by the hundred thousand per year.

  • avatar
    jeoff

    I’d go with Vega; it is the car that got people thinking that there has to be something better.

  • avatar
    and003

    I wonder if the Citation’s engine bay is roomy enough to accommodate a V-8.

    • 0 avatar
      DenverMike

      @and003

      Yes and no. You’d have to leave room for the trans in there. FWD NorthStar? RWD would require a complete floor pan from a Camaro, let’s say. Or sitting the body on an S10 or Colorado frame. CUV?

      So yes it can be done, but no.

  • avatar
    WildcatMatt

    Late to the party as usual, but I think John Z. pretty much laid it out in “On a Clear Day…”

    Essentially, when Sloan reorganized GM he set it up so the divisions were semi-autonomous and the company was run by someone who understood what you had to do to make a car, with an accountant looking over his shoulder to ensure reasonable fiscal responsibility. This worked until the accountants eventually took near total control of the boardroom.

    Meanwhile, the ’60s saw a huge proliferation of models, submodels, trim, and engine choices at a time when most of the divisions did not have the organizational skills and tools to manage parts inventory. So when the accountants got serious about cost containment the divisions were largely caught with their pants down.

    Bake this with a heavy seasoning of the hubris and tunnel vision in place within management at most levels, and you have a recipe for total disaster.

    DeLorean tells the story that the Vega debacle came from the fact that GM management essentially rammed the car down Chevy’s throat and left the bowtie boys to figure out how to make it live up to the hype, creating so much resentment that most folks within Chevrolet wanted to sabotage the car.

    I agree with the previous posters that most of these cars are symptoms, not causes. The change from “making cars” to “making money” is a good summary. So I submit that GM’s costliest mistake was allowing the balance of power at the top to become so inverted and insulated that the company could become disconnected from its mission.

  • avatar
    DisTurbo

    http://farm4.static.flickr.com/3132/3725810509_e6ebca1dbf.jpg
    this is my answer. I believe this marks the point where it all started to go wrong.


Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Subscribe without commenting

Recent Comments

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote

Staff

  • Authors

  • Brendan McAleer, Canada
  • Marcelo De Vasconcellos, Brazil
  • Matthias Gasnier, Australia
  • J & J Sutherland, Canada
  • Tycho de Feyter, China
  • W. Christian 'Mental' Ward, Abu Dhabi
  • Mark Stevenson, Canada
  • Faisal Ali Khan, India