General Motors Death Watch 144: Nolo Contendere

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago
general motors death watch 144 nolo contendere

Last week, I spoke with former Florida Oldsmobile dealer Robert Horvath. Horvath insisted that General Motors cut a secret deal with Toyota to deep-six Olds. Reacting to this tin foil hat analysis of Oldsmobile’s demise, TTAC commentator canfood extended his deepest sympathies. “When something so unexpected and seemingly nonsensical happens it causes people to attribute it to some kind of outside force or even some kind of supernatural event.” Less charitably, if you refuse to accept reality long enough, you lose the ability to do so. The men helming GM are on that arc.

Bob Lutz is the poster child for GM's delusional denial. For some reason, GM’s Vice Chairman of Product Development can't get his head around the fact that only a handful of his employer's products are demonstrably better than the competitions', while most are patently worse. The idea that the new Chevrolet Malibu is no Accord killer simply doesn't appear on the former Marine aviator's radar screen. And if the new Honda Accord [continues to] kick the Malibu’s ass in the sales chart? Why there must be other, more sinister forces at work.

In fact, it’s only a matter of time before Maximum Bob will be shuffling around a swank hotel in a terry cloth bathrobe muttering Horvathian diatribes about The Black Dragon Society’s secret pact with The Oval Office. Rick Wagoner will eventually succumb to the same paranoid psychosis– only he’ll bore bystanders with endless, detailed expositions on currency manipulation, health care policy, union relations and the unequal burden of federal regulations on American automakers.

I know I’m getting ahead of myself. I'm preparing for GM’s August sales stats. Even as the bad news hits the wires, The General’s spinmeisters will claim the faltering housing market caused a general downturn in U.S. automobile sales which, they will insist, led to their precarious predicament. In other words, the corporate big wigs will trot-out the Curly defense: “I’m a victim of coicumstance!”

Of course, Toyota’s growth in this declining market is proof positive that GM is a “victim” of nothing more (or less) than its own incompetence. Not to put too fine a point on it, the artist formerly known as the world’s largest automaker is circling the bowl because it can’t get out of its own way.

I mean that literally. GM’s stifling bureaucratic structure lies at the heart of the American automaker's multi-decade fall from grace. And if you thought GM’s management had reacted to the company's evaporating U.S. market share by keelhauling its corporate culture, ending octo-divisional internecine warfare and unleashing the world-class creativity lingering within, think again.

From tail lamp designs to drivetrains, GM product decisions are [still] made, remade, unmade, abandoned and resurrected with scant regard to deadlines, aesthetics or electro-mechanical harmony. What’s worse, GM’s new emphasis on “global development” has made the design process worse. Which brand gets what bit when and where in what form for how much is now a subject of international debate.

Overlapping fiefdoms continue to force GM designers and engineers to implement the simplest solution, rather than the best. A new Cadillac based on the old Saab platform? A new Saab on a Chevy platform? We can do that! Three new crossovers on the same Lambda platform? Why not four? Saturn Aura and Chevy Malibu twins based on an Opel? OK! Import another rear-wheel-drive Aussie V8 for Pontiac after the first one flopped? Go for it! It all makes perfect sense to someone. (I'm looking at you Mr. Car Czar). But not the consumer.

It’s the bureaucracy, stupid. And what has GM’s CEO done to dismantle the enemy within? Nothing. Why would he? Dismantling GM’s bureaucracy would destroy Rick Wagoner's power base and annihilate the only world he's ever known. And yet the devolution of power was GM's only possible savior.

Ask yourself this: would an independent Pontiac have created the lackluster lineup currently littering their dealers’ lots? Would those dealers also be selling Buick sedans and crossovers and GMC pickup trucks and SUVs? Would a full functional Cadillac offer cars that compete on price rather than style or quality? If Saturn had controlled its own destiny, would they have built Americanized Opels for their rabidly loyal customers? And what about Oldsmobile? As Mr. Horvath pointed out (repeatedly), the Oldsmobile Cutlass was America’s best selling car from 1970 to 1985.

In truth, GM’s bureaucracy killed Oldsmobile the same way it’s poisoning Pontiac, Cadillac, Saturn and the five other brands GM flogs stateside. By failing to nurture, protect and value each brand’s [once] unique promise to its customers; by chasing the next big thing rather than doing every little thing to fulfill that promise, GM's sucked the soul right out their product.

At some point in the not too distant future, the cancer will kill the host. GM’s bureaucracy will drive the company into bankruptcy. Toyota and the transplants may have been the instrument of this ignominy, but they were never its cause.

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  • CeeDragon CeeDragon on Sep 06, 2007
    GM’s problem right now is mostly marketing. It's this sentiment that's kept GM from fixing their real problems. It's easier to do "brand management", "channel marketing", etc. rather than engineer good products.

  • Jthorner Jthorner on Sep 06, 2007
    "Robert Farago : September 4th, 2007 at 7:57 pm Frank’s preparing an editorial on GM’s August results. As a preview, I’ll say this: fleets and commercial. " Are we still going to see this analysis?

  • Dave M. I think I last listened to AM after 9/11, but the talk radio cesspool took its toll on my mental health. Prior to that I last listened to AM in the '70s....I'm a 20-year XM subscriber; Apple Music also has me in its grip. For traffic conditions I use Waze, which I've found to be highly reliable.
  • Art Vandelay Install shortwave so I can get numbers stations
  • THX1136 Radio World has been talking about this for a few years now. The public perception of AM has done much to malign it. As some have pointed out, there are parts of the country that work well with AM, especially when considering range. Yes indeed, there are options. To me that's what this is more about. The circuitry for AM is probably all on one chip now - or close to it. It cannot be a matter of cost - even at the inflated manufacturer asking price. Making what appears to be an arbitrary decision and reducing choice seems unwise in the area of radio in vehicles.Some have commented that they never listen to AM 'so I'm not missing it'. I'm guessing that many folks don't use ALL the features their many devices offer. Yet, they are still there for those occasions when one wants to avail themselves. Bottom line for me is it should still be an available option for the folks out there that, for whatever reason, want to access AM radio. Side note: Top 40 radio on AM was where all the music I listened to as a youth (55 years ago) came from, there were few (if any) FM stations at that time that carried the format. FM was mostly classical and talk and wasn't ubiquitously available in a portable form - AM was. FYI, the last I knew all stations - AM & FM - still have to have an EAS system as part of their broadcast chain. It's tested by the FCC at least once a year and all stations must be able to pass along the alert messages or face action from the FCC to correct the situation.
  • Robert I don't know why they don't use a knob for the gear shifter on the console like in the Ford Fusion. Takes up a lot less space than a shifter on the console and looks a lot better than a stalk on the steering column.
  • David S. "Stellantis" a woke company showing off evil ICE trucks!?! Bernie Sanders is having a stroke!!