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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