General Motors' Branding Fiasco Part Two – Chevrolet's ADD

Paul Niedermeyer
by Paul Niedermeyer
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general motors branding fiasco part two chevrolet s add

During the American car industry’s formative years, entrepreneurs started car companies left and right, jostling for quick profits and market share. Flint Rock native William Durant had a meta vision: agglomerate the best of the new automakers to create an empire called General Motors. This he did, through endless charm and clever financing. But Durant gambled too much too often, and lost control of his brainchild. The Chevrolet brand was born out of wedlock, to fund Billy Durant’s comeback.

Durant convinced Swiss-born race car driver Louis Chevrolet to lend his name and engineering talents to the start-up. Chevy launched its first car in 1912. The success of the “Classic Six” five-passenger sedan– complete with a windshield, electric lights and a folding top– fulfilled Durant’s ambitions; paving the way for a brief return to GM’s helm.

More to the point, Chevy’s branding identity was born: value for money.

In 1915, Chevy underlined the point with the 490, named for its $490 price. The model was a direct challenge to Ford’s Model T. By 1927, Chevrolet’s production numbers crested 1m, sailing by Ford. (For 51 of the next 55 years, the Bowtie outsold the Blue Oval.)

In 1929, Durant successor Alfred Sloan green lighted a new six cylinder model. Chevrolet’s “six for the price of a four” jibed perfectly with the brand’s basic selling proposition, and paid off in spades.

Ford’s 1932 V8 tried to up the ante. Even though the flat-head V8 became a hot-rod legend, Chevy’s smoother, more powerful and efficient six remained the people’s choice.

In ’50, Chevy introduced the Powerglide transmission, welcoming American mass market motorists to the world of the automatic gearbox. In ’54, Chevy customers could enjoy power brakes, windows and seats.

In ’55, Chevy brought V8 power to the people. Although pistonheads tend to focus on the model’s 162hp small-block engine– which unseated the Ford flathead as the hot-rodders weapon of choice– the car’s size, price (around $1700) and performance hit the sweet spot. The ’55 – ’57 Chevys were also [relatively] well constructed and more stylish than comparable Fords and Plymouths.

If only Chevy hadn’t followed its competitor’s footsteps during the ‘58 – ‘60 maximum barge era. But they did, with a vengeance, losing both their reputation for right-priced mechanical innovation and their focus on bottom-rung-of-the-ownership-ladder positioning.

Chevy super-sized their cars, and kept on growing. The ‘58 Impala was specifically designed to give Chevrolets a “big car look.” Though immediately successful, the trend towards full-size Chevys was a big mistake. Literally. It began the process of blurring the brand’s carefully nurtured entry-level identity with that of Pontiac, Buick and Cadillac.

By the early ‘70’s, Chevy’s passenger cars had become leviathans that shared a lot more with their brother brands than just their size and the dubious “GM Mark of Excellence” badge. GM’s relentless badge-engineering– sharing mechanical bits between divisions– removed many key distinctions between brands. With the debut of the pumped-up and plushed-out the ’71 Caprice, the gap between Chevy and Caddy products narrowed to a minuscule 25 percent.

Of course, Chevrolet hadn’t abandoned small cars; it just seemed that way. From an engineering, style and price point-of-view, the ’60 Corvair was about as good as it got. It was an ambitious and influential model in keeping with the brand’s promise of inexpensive innovation. But the final design was flawed, hamstrung by beancounteritis, and then buried by Ralph Nader.

Chevrolet tried again with the ’62 Chevy II. The parts bin special soon morphed into their new mid-market template; it porked-up and changed its name to Nova, leaving the compact market wide open for the imports. The ’71 Vega and ’76 Chevette were another doomed salvo in the brand’s ongoing, miserable and futile attempts to counter the small import tsunami.

Meanwhile, the downsized and evergreen Impala/Caprice (’77 – ’90), Citation and Malibu marked a welcome return to the “classic” Chevrolet mid-sized, bargain-priced formula. Both models were neglected to death.

Chevy stuck with the Cavalier for 24 years. While the Japanese competition refreshed its competing products every four or five years, Chevrolet kept building essentially the same car. Alas, evolutionary– or revolutionary– engineering was no longer the GM way.

The Corvette and Chevy’s trucks were the exception the proved the rule. Unfortunately, the former has nothing to do with Chevy branding and the latter’s success distracted Chevrolet from its declining passenger car fortunes– to the point where a Korean-built compact is now the entry point to a decidedly lackluster, fleet-oriented passenger car lineup.

The Aveo points to Chevy’s future: cheap compacts from Korea, China and India. And not just for us. GM’s small “world cars” now carry the moribund dreams of the bowtie badge’s creators. It’s an ambitious effort that will ensure GM’s global survival. Or not.

Paul Niedermeyer
Paul Niedermeyer

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  • Anonymous Anonymous on Jun 15, 2009

    [...] cost competitive and produce top quality, reliable, desirable vehicles. Check out this post on The Truth About Cars for a quick review of the Chevy [...]

  • Stan2 Stan2 on Oct 22, 2009

    After the 60's and early 70's the cars fell apart - no innovations anywhere - Windows that would hit your head Cutlas - Film scum would go on the windows - Keys that bang on the column in any turs still like this in their outdated trucks - Springy rides - Windows freeze up - Lousy heat - Sick and tired of seeing rust in the same places for 2 decades. I mean come on. - Fat gus sucking motors. - Chrome (alum paint) on PlasTIC remember that - Seats ripping - How about the rivet bolts in the Bumpers.Remember those???? - GM needed a re-invention starting in 1975 - and yes FORD needs NEW Ford decals I bought one and took that ugly cheap looking badge off.

  • George Hughes What ever happened to the American can-do attitude. I know what, it was coopted by the fossil fuel industry in their effort to protect their racket.
  • 28-Cars-Later "But Assemblyman Phil Ting, the San Franciscan Democrat who wrote the electric school bus legislation, says this is all about the health and wellbeing of Golden State residents. In addition to the normal air pollution stemming from exhaust gasses, he believes children are being exposed to additional carcinogens by just being on a diesel bus."Phil is into real estate, he doesn't know jack sh!t about science or medicine and if media were real it would politely remind him his opinions are not qualified... if it were real. Another question if media were real is why is a very experienced real estate advisor and former tax assessor writing legislation on school busses? If you read the rest of his bio after 2014, his expertise seems to be applied but he gets into more and more things he's not qualified to speak to or legislate on - this isn't to say he isn't capable of doing more but just two years ago Communism™ kept reminding me Dr. Fauxi knew more about medicine than I did and I should die or something. So Uncle Phil just gets a pass with his unqualified opinions?Ting began his career as a real estate  financial adviser at  Arthur Andersen and  CBRE. He also previously served as the executive director of the  Asian Law Caucus, as the president of the Bay Area Assessors Association, and on the board of  Equality California. [url=][1][/url][h3][/h3]In 2005, Ting was appointed San Francisco Assessor-Recorder in 2005 by Mayor  Gavin Newsom, becoming San Francisco’s highest-ranking  Chinese-American official at the time. He was then elected to the post in November 2005, garnering 58 percent of the vote.Ting was re-elected Assessor-Recorder in 2006 and 2010During his first term in the Assembly, Ting authored a law that helped set into motion the transformation of Piers 30-32 into what would become  Chase Center the home of the  Golden State Warriors
  • RHD This looks like a lead balloon. You could buy a fantastic classic car for a hundred grand, or a Mercedes depreciationmobile. There isn't much reason to consider this over many other excellent vehicles that cost less. It's probably fast, but nothing else about it is in the least bit outstanding, except for the balance owed on the financing.
  • Jeff A bread van worthy of praise by Tassos.
  • Jeff The car itself is in really good shape and it is worth the money. It has lots of life left in it and can easily go over 200k.