By on June 28, 2006

64 Chevy.jpgOnce upon a time there was an automobile company that was so big that it looked like it was about to drive all the other car companies out of business.  This behemoth made every kind of car, from sports cars to limos, and every kind of truck, from the smallest to the largest. They made almost all of the busses that took people to work, and most of the locomotives that pulled trains across the county. Their diesel engines powered most of the construction equipment, ran the pumps that pulled oil out of the ground and moved ships on the seas.  There was only one cloud on the horizon: they were too successful. 

That company was General Motors.  The times were the turbulent ‘60’s.  John F. Kennedy was the President of the United States, and he was determined to knock GM down a peg.  JFK had the tools, in the form of anti-trust laws and an activist justice department.  Their goal: destroy GM’s supposed monopoly by removing Chevrolet from its corporate parent.  An epic fight began, that continued for an entire decade.  Eventually, the federal government became preoccupied with war, inflation and civil unrest, and withdrew their actions against GM.  But what if…

The Kennedy administration had split Chevrolet from GM.  At the time, Chevy accounted for roughly 35% of all US automobile sales.  If the Justice Department had been able to detach the bow tie boys from The General, the resulting, newly-independent automaker would have been the largest car company in the world, about as big as Ford and Chrysler combined.  America would have been left with four highly competitive automobile manufacturers: Chevrolet, GM, Ford and Chrysler.   

No question, Chevy could have gone it alone.  The brand had their own engineering staff and a number of unique platforms (e.g. the Corvair, Chevy II and Corvette).  Although Chevrolet’s hugely successful BelAir and Impala line shared Fisher Body underpinnings with other GM products, the issue could have been easily resolved.  GM had a long history of selling components to other carmakers; Chevy could have simply bought its bodies from Fisher.  Other centralized functions, such as marketing and purchasing, would have presented more of a logistical challenge, but nothing insurmountable.

Imagine a Chevrolet brand focused on building low-cost cars and pickup trucks, with a world-class sports car for a halo vehicle.  Freed from the obligation to tailor their cars to corporate platform sharing, Chevrolet’s lineup could have been distinctive, focused and original.  Family cars like the BelAir and Impala would have evolved without GM’s baggage, emerging from the 60’s ready to fend-off Toyota and Honda in the low-end sedan market.  Chevy could have responded to the deluge of quality imports with quality domestics. 

With a corporate focus on product rather than interdepartmental politics and intrigue, Chevy would have never wasted billions on Saturn.  It wouldn’t have had to sell cars of dubious international parentage, or rebadged someone else’s idea of a brand appropriate product.  Meanwhile, bereft of Chevrolet, GM might also have become a much healthier, more nimble and innovative company. For one thing, Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick would have been forced to survive on their own, instead of coasting on Chevrolet’s profits and parts.

Since each GM division already had their own engineering staff, Pontiac would have been able to develop its performance excitement at a higher price point than Chevrolet.  (The Firebird, when it appeared, would not have been a Camaro clone, but a distinct and distinctive car.)  Oldsmobile could have built on its track record of innovative engineering established by the Toronado, America’s first practical front-wheel drive car.  Buick might have used the same clever platform sharing that let them build a rear-wheel drive Riviera from the front-wheel drive Toronado to build solid luxury cars at relatively affordable prices.

GMC would be free to develop heavy trucks, rather than people’s pickups and utilitarian SUV’s.  And Cadillac, the “Standard of the World,” could have used the profits from Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick to remain a world-class luxury car, unsullied by the Chevrolet parts mentality.  A properly-regarded, properly funded Cadillac would never have embarrassed itself with affordable front-wheel drive trash.  The brand could have stayed on the high-road and built vehicles capable of competing with Mercedes, BMW and Audi– and generated profits from, dare I say it, international sales.

Of course, who’s to say a Chevy-less GM wouldn’t have screwed-up their business just as badly as today’s GM.  Or that a GM-less Chevy could have responded to the Japanese invasion with something better than the Vega.  Even so, we now have a General Motors that’s significantly smaller than JFK’s trust-busters would have dared propose, just inches away from bankruptcy.  Once that goes down, the smart money is on GM selling off or dumping everything except… Chevrolet, GMC and Cadillac.  What goes around, comes around.  

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13 Comments on “What if?...”

  • avatar

    good article. I would love to see GM dump everything but chevy and caddy. I dont care much for GMC myself… i think chevy makes enough trucks and SUVs for one company anyways. But if GM really could just focus on one main brand and one luxury brand (just like the imports: nissan/infinti, toyota/lexus, honda/acura…) i think that would make much more sense both economically for them, and for the consumer as well. Just for this reason alone, i hope this bankruptcy deal goes down. cant wait for GM’s chapter-11….

  • avatar

    Yeah, and if the queen had balls, she’d be king.

    This argument is right up there with “What if southerners had the atom bomb during the Civil War?” Maybe we’d all be whistling Dixie. But they didn’t, so we’re not.

    Next topic?

  • avatar

    GM can’t peel off “damaged brands” like Buick and Pontiac because they learned from Oldsmobile that the cost is too high, especially today with GM’s shrinking wallet.

    Here’s my prescription for GM: Ape the imports (German style and Asian quality) and trim the number of cars and options within each model. And, one more thing, it’s time to retire the pushrods. I say, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    It’s all very plausable save for the idea that “Chevrolet would have responded to quality imports with quality domestics.” This, after all, is the company who built an aluminum engine for their compact “import fighter,” the Vega, which came apart at 60,000 miles. When I was in the Navy, a friend of mine, who was up until then, a big believer in Chevrolet bought a Vega and lost his car and a ton of money (payments still being made, as I recall) when his car’s engine went at around 60,000 miles.
    Of course, the head of Chevrolet during this debacle was no less than the late John Z. De Lorean. So yeah, maybe he might not have headed it, since he came over from Pontiac. But as another person here has said, it is indeed akin to that faux documentary, “C.S.A.” General Motors would never have let Chevrolet go, even if John Kennedy had lived and tried to break them up. Likely they would have gotten better lawyers (than the ones who tried to fight Ralph Nader and sent private investigators after him to find out if he was gay). And no, GM wasn’t behind the Kennedy Assasination. At least Robert can’t pin that one on them. Or can he?

  • avatar

    Much as I dislike GM and Chevrolet, to be honest, the horribly ill-fated Vega was NOT a Chevrolet. It was only BADGED as a Chevrolet. It was a General Motors Corporate Office design forced upon Chevrolet by GM executive decision. Read John Z. Delorean’s book “On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors” about his life and times at GM, including his first task as the new head of Chevrolet (after being promoted from being “chief” at Pontiac).

    Delorean had to introduce the already developed Vega and toe the corporate lie/line that it was a “great small car” when in fact, he knew what an absolute piece of sh!t it truly was, as only an engineer could.

    The very first Vega prototype broke in half within about a mile on the GM test track, by the way. It was also supposed to be a 2 liter (displacement) car, but by the time the GM (not Chevrolet Division) engineers beefed it up (so it wouldn’t break in half), they had to increase the stroke of the engine by 15% for extra power because it weighed so much!

    My personal theory is that this longer stroke exceeded the (piston-speed) capabilities of the silicon-alloy block (the cast iron coated pistons were moving up and down inside silicon-aluminum alloy cylinders instead of aluminum pistons in an iron liner or iron block). The Vega engine started out as an “oversquare” design (the hint being the 1975 Cosworth-Vega 2.0 litre engine, of 3.5″ bore, 3.16″ stroke, would have mimicked the “originally planned” Vega engine bore and stroke to obtain 2.0 liters displacement). We know the initial GM Designed Vega was a 2.0 liter car, and that the bore dimension was locked-in, therefore it is an easy guess to make.

    The Vega’s “stroked” final production 2.3 litre engine had a 3.5″ bore and 3.63″ stroke, thus was “undersquare”. At any given RPM, the piston speed was thus far higher than the 2.0 litre engine initially planned. Thus, the motor burned out. (Plus, it sounded much like a tractor motor; I had friends with them). Yes, tractor motors are long stroke and low-RPM. Having a long-stroke, low RPM engine block design with a high-speed capable overhead camshaft head is at best, incongruous; at worst, a “Vega” disaster in the making for hundreds of thousands of hapless Chevrolet Vega owners.

    Mercedes and Porsche eventually made the “Vega” silicon-alloy block technology work – but it was nearly a decade later.

    Chevrolet Division’s “Vega” would have been an entirely Chevrolet engineered car, without that awful aluminum engine. Details of the Chevrolet small car are now lost, but as a guess, I’d say it would have been a conventional car with an engine much like the slightly later Chevette, but probably with a displacement of 2 litres instead of 1.4 and 1.6 liters, as the Chevette. Therefore, my guess is that it would have used an overhead camshaft with toothed belt, using lessons leared from the Pontiac OHC six (built from 1966-1969), as well as an iron block and head (again, as the later Chevette). The toothed belt OHC design was the “high-tech” four cylinder design flavor of the decade for many manufacturers, and the Vega used a toothed belt OHC head (although it was a very cheap, poor design).

    Had Chevrolet built their own OHC four for the Vega, they “could” have utilized the 1969 Corvair pistons, rods, valve springs and valves in a “recycling” effort; thus a 2 liter four would have had a 3.44″ bore, and 3.25″ stroke. (With Chevrolet engineers having a habit of liking the 3.25″ stroke – as used in their Chevrolet 230 six and 307 and 327 V8’s of the 1960’s, this seems a very likely bore and stroke for a new small car). This is, in fact, quite unlike the thinking of GM because it smacks of “good stewardship” – wheras GM at the time didn’t feel it needed to save any money – however, had Chevrolet been on their own, or had Chevrolet engineers and bean-counters actually come to some kind of agreement, it would have made terrific sense.

    In fact, this could have saved millions in engineering and production start-up costs alone, whether or not Chevrolet had been independent of GM at the time. In fact, Chevrolet could have “borrowed” a Renault idea of the time, and used a camshaft situated near the top of the cast iron block, with very short pushrods to the overhead valves, making for 9/10ths of the benefits of an overhead camshaft job without the cost and service drawbacks. (Not forgetting that 99% of American cars had OHV heads at the time). This would have also enabled production engineers to “recycle” the valve lifters of the Corvair engine, and the engine would have been 1/2″ shorter than an OHC engine, to boot (unless a toothed belt cam drive were used – it would have been a worldwide engineering first to put this on an OHV engine – FIAT did it later, so it is not technically impossible or undesirable).

    Therefore; had GM and Chevrolet been separated in the 1960’s, Chevrolet’s later “Vega” would have been an entirely different car. It “MAY” have even been a “good” car.

    Ironically, the “Vega” offshoot, the Pontiac Astre, may have been the car that WAS the Vega, since Pontiac would have remained part of GM, and GM would have pushed Pontiac down-market to compete with its now-competitor, Chevrolet (but, I’d bet Pontiac would have retained a slightly sporting flavor under Delorean). This may have resulted in John Z. Delorean being the eventual President of General Motors, eh? He surely would not have gone on to head Chevrolet if it’d been a different company by that time.

    As President of Pontiac during the development phase of the GM designed small car, being the engineer he was, he may well have simply said “no use re-inventing the wheel” and used a cut-down Pontiac OHC 6 for his small car, instead of the aluminum horror. He could have resurrected piston dies and engine bore-tooling in the Pontiac factories from the 1965 Pontiac OHV six, used the OHC head, and the resulting cut-down four cylinder OHC engine would have cost almost nothing to develop, would have had a 3.75″ bore and 3.25″ stroke for 143.3 cubic inches (2.3 liters). It would have been based on a proven Pontiac engine, and already would have been familiar to Pontiac dealers. It also would have been desirably up-market from the “common garden variety” Ford Pinto and Chevrolet competitors, with more power.

    Perhaps eventually GM would have “done a Chrysler” and set-up a division called Delorean within GM to build his “ethical” stainless steel gullwing car, eh?

    Isn’t conjecture fun?

  • avatar

    “On a Clear Day…” is an awesome book. If you haven’t read it, buy one (used copies are cheap) and do so. It’s good enough to read more than once.

    I don’t have my market share info handy, but don’t recall Chevrolet being so far ahead of Ford during those years.

  • avatar

    Boy could I see at least two things that would not have happened if this senario had happened.

    1. No Oldsmobiles with Chevy engines

    2. No Chevrolets with gasoline engines converted to diesel (anyone want to buy an 83 Chevy Impala Diesel? Still doesn’t run)

  • avatar

    This anti-trust fear is what started the 20-30 year decline of GM. Look at the history of the company – particularly the late ’70s. Ford and Chrysler were on the brink of bankruptcy – one needed a govt. bailout. The suits at GM realized they had a big problem – and an opportunity. First, they merged the car divisions into two groups – Chevy, Pontiac, GMC and Buick, Olds, Caddy. This would make it harder to break up the company. This is when badge engineering began to really become noticable. This is when they all started sharing engines, etc. No amount of marketing in the world can conceal the fact that a Caddy Cimmaron is a Chevy Cavalier! Instead of a holding company with a bunch of decentralized divisions competing with each other and outsiders – filling a very wide range of consumer tastes while leveraging the massive financial clout for purchasing and manufacturing efficiency, we now had the same cars just sold through different dealer channels. This left an opening for other companies to fill the now unaddressed niches. At the same time they embarked on a plan to renovate or rebuild every factory with heavy use reliance on automation in the new plants (remember the Fanuc robot division?). The thinking was they would bury Ford and Chrysler on the manufacturing side and leave the Asian companies at the starting gate. Unfortunately, they had a lot of start up issues with this automation while the others figured out how to get more efficient with people (think Ford). They also spent too much on factories and not enough on product development. Combine that with the UAW fear of productivity gains leading to less union members and the expensive job bank appears.

    This one reason why I’m opposed to anti-trust laws – they encourage companies to do suicidal things. Are we better as a nation with GM on life support or when they were employing hundreds of thousands of people? Think about that the next time you read about the feds. going after Microsoft (and keep in mind how many foreign interests are stiring up trouble in this area looking for an opening to steal that business from us).

  • avatar

    As long as we’re bashing the Vega. My first car was a used 72 Vega. By the time we bought it when it was 5 or 6 years old, the engine had been rebuilt or massively repaired, it was chronically almost impossible to start (despite the fact that a mechanic had installed a freaking choke lever under the dash), and it needed to be repainted. Plus, all-black interior with no A/C, just what you need in the South during summer. And remember when there was such thing as an AM-only radio? (This, before sports talk radio was invented)

    Eventually we traded that P.O.S. for a load of firewood.

    On the rare occasions I start to feel any sympathy for US automakers, I just think about that Vega.

  • avatar

    I see several similarities in the history of GM with that off the now defunct British Leyland (aka. BL, BMC, Rover, MG-Rover etc.) group. That too was a conglomeration of once autonomous companies that in the 70’s made a spectrum of vehicles and had 30% of the UK market share.

    Poor labor relations, engineering and build quality one-by-one sullied each of the brands in the group with lousy cars (Austin, Morris), rebadged imports (Triumph), stodgy sedans (Rover) and wannabee sports cars (MG). Successive management (HM govt, British Aerospace, Honda, BMW et al) always promised a turnaround just around the corner while splitting off the bits that did, would or could make money (Jaguar, LandRover and MINI).

    In the end they were selling to the domestic market only and on patriotism alone … “Buy British !!”; but by then the foreign companies had built their own UK plants and claimed to be just as British. The cash ran out and, when the government refused to intervene, the company ceased to exist.

    Tell me this doesn’t sound like a familiar story.

  • avatar

    glenn, conjecture is fun as long as jrhmobile isn’t your father/husband/boss.

  • avatar

    I agree, GM is like a huge bureaucracy. They need to cut a lot of the fat out. Chevy, GMC, and Cadillac are the only ones worth preserving.

    One of GM’s old cost cutting move that tickles me is their “chopping off” cylinders off from their V8s instead of redesigning a smaller engine. The 4.3 V6 is essentially a 350 with 2 less cylinders. The 4.3 sounds exactly what a V8 sounds with missing 2 cylinders. To it’s credit the 4.3 was very durable, unlike GMs dreadful 350 diesel conversion.

    I recommend another book – “The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry”, written by Brock Yates in 1984. Easy to read and humorous. An obvious Detroit basher. Book is interesting to read, although very biased against Detroit.

  • avatar

    I bought my mother a 1981 Delta Royale Oldsmobile Diesel and it was so quiet even the dealer couldn’t tell the engine was running. But she lived in Montana and its impossible to keep passenger car diesel flowing at 70 below zero. (real temperature).
    On the other hand, those snooty Oldsmobile owners deserved what they got after complaining their cars had Chevrolet engines.
    I drive a 1994 Cadillac Fleetwood Brougham front engine/rear drive and it also has a Chevrolet engine (LT-1 Corvette). The last run of the big rear drive Cadillacs all had Corvette engines and you didn’t hear any Cadillac owners complaining, did you?

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