General Motors Death Watch 169: Those Who Do Not Learn From History Try to Rewrite It

general motors death watch 169 those who do not learn from history try to rewrite it

“Not making a car like the Prius was a mistake.” In recent days, GM’s Car Czar has amped-up his pro-hybrid rhetoric, including this mea culpa. Clearly, Vice Chair Bob Lutz’s enthusiasm for gas – electric products has undergone a volte face, inspired by his fatalistic conclusion that only alt power can satisfy federal regulators’ mandates for increased fuel efficiency. But in his newfound zeal, Maximum Bob is rewriting history. In the interests of truth, let’s set the record straight.

“We had the technology to come out with a hybrid at the same time as Toyota… In hindsight, it was a mistake… We made the mistake and we won’t make it again” (ABC News).

Lutz is referring to GM’s 1996 EV1, whose release predated the Prius by a model year. More specifically, the year after the Prius began its long, slow, difficult march into the automotive mainstream, GM introduced several alt power variants of their all-electric EV1 at the Detroit Auto Show. They displayed a diesel/electric parallel hybrid, gas turbine/electric series hybrid, fuel cell/electric and compressed natural gas low emission internal combustion engine EV1.

With the benefit of hindsight, it’s easy to say GM should have developed the EV1 as a gas – electric hybrid. But the EV1 was NEVER designed as a mainstream vehicle. It was produced solely to satisfy the demands of California’s Zero Emissions Vehicle regulations and, latterly, PR. The exotic powerplants the EV1 could have been offered were blue sky. Besides, it’s quite a leap to think that GM would have backed the right horse in this alt power race when, in fact, they didn’t.

In contrast, Toyota chose one environmentally-friendly technology and stuck with it– through three years of development and many more thereafter. Right from the start, the Synergy Drive-equipped Prius was designed to be both scaleable and affordable. In terms of price, range, convenience and comfort, the dumpy first generation Prius was irrefutably more of a “real world” vehicle than the 90-miles-per-charge EV1.

“Lutz said being late to the market with hybrids has cost GM billions in sales because it lost its image of having superior technology” (Detroit News). “I think the company has learned when you step out and do bold things, you win” (ABC News).

Truth be told, GM hasn’t had an “image of superior technology” since the mid-fifties. Since then, GM’s half-baked efforts to cultivate “superior technology” have destroyed its image, wounded its rep and shed sales. Corvair, Buick aluminum V8, Vega, the Wankel rotary engine, Cadillac V8-6-4, Oldsmobile diesel, X-car FWD, plastic intake manifolds— GM’s list of abortive cutting edge technologies is long and depressingly consistent.

GM has not learned from this history, and if it has, it’s learned the wrong lesson. In its attempt to recapture the technological high ground, GM has developed four hybrid systems, all of which are bold, none of which is commercially viable. GM could stick with one system and try to use economies of scale to generate a profit. But it hasn’t. Once again, it’s chasing a new technology.

“GM’s initial estimates of 60,000 to 100,000 annual Volt sales could grow five-fold, Lutz said, adding that the car is a ‘game changer’ on par with the Ford Model T.” (Detroit News).

The Volt has absolutely nothing in common with the Model T. Henry Ford’s “game changer” was all about the rationalized production of a quality, economical low-cost car. The affordable, reliable Model T was the most profitable industrial undertaking the world had ever seen.

The $2500 Tata Nano is a “game changer” on a par with the Crazy Henry’s Tin Lizzy. To suggest that the $40k-plus Chevrolet Volt (or the forthcoming $48k plug-in Saturn Vue) will revolutionize transportation and save GM’s bacon is the worst kind of hyperbole: the kind that deceives its originator into self-destructive delusions of grandeur.

“I don't think it would be a vast overstatement to say the Volt is in many ways symbolic of a renaissance in the American auto industry” (Bob Lutz, Wired).

Lutz is re-writing history in advance. While it’s often said that history is written by the winners, it’s equally true that propaganda is written by its losers.

In any case, the U.S. auto industry has already experienced its renaissance— in the transplant factories dotted across the South. Volt or no, GM will never– can never– recapture the market share its shed over the last five decades.

(Lutz comparing the Volt to the moon shot) “Yes. That's a good analogy. If it doesn't work, it's not fatal. But if it does work, it will be sensational” (Wired).

The history here is apt. The moon shot was a hugely expensive and unsustainable exercise in national pride that enriched its subcontractors but not its “investors” (i.e. taxpayers). The Volt will eventually appear. But it will not save GM. It will be a historic achievement marking the end of GM's history.

Join the conversation
2 of 34 comments
  • Rix Rix on Mar 27, 2008

    Am I the only one who sees this as a positive? GM actually admitting it's mistakes instead of just claiming "our product is competitive with thte Toyota" over and over? Incidentally, I fail to see the Nano as a game changer. It's a glorified motor scooter and there isn't enough profit in the $2500 after making a car to change the game much. I don't think there is enough profit in the below $6k and above $2.5k range to make a revolutionary product. Still, I expect to see many nano innovation such as adhesive assembly, show up in major manufacturer cars in the next generation.

  • DC DC on Apr 25, 2008

    Different times, different market conditions, etc. It's easy for you to go around and beat the dead horse further by chastizing them for killing the EV1 and go on playing the game of what might have been. However, they made a decision based on what was going on at the time. By the way, Toyota had the RAV-4 EV, which was also killed... The Volt is potentially the first in a new generation of primarily electric cars. I don't see how the Volt is constantly twisted into something so negative. Unless you're Toyota, what have you got to be so worried about? It's almost comical at this point to see the twist put into things to make them into signs that GM is on the deathbed.

  • MaintenanceCosts There's no mystery anymore about how the Japanese took over the prestige spot in the US mass market (especially on the west coast) when you realize that this thing was up against the likes of the Fairmont, Citation, and Volaré. A massacre.
  • MaintenanceCosts Chevy used to sell almost this exact color on the Sonic, Bolt, and Camaro, as "Shock." And I have a story about that.I bought my Bolt in 2019. Unsurprisingly the best deal came from the highest-volume Bolt dealer in my very EV-friendly area. They had huge inventory; I bought right when Chevy started offering major incentives, and the car had been priced too high to sell well until that point.Half the inventory had a nice mix of trims and colors, and I was able to find the exact dark-gray-on-white Premier I wanted. But the real mystery was the other half of the inventory. It was something like 40 cars, all Shock on black, split between LT and Premier. You could get an additional $2000 or so off the already low selling price if you bought one of them. (Neither my wife nor I thought the deal worth it.) The cars were real and in the flesh; a couple were out front, but behind the showroom, there was an entire row of them.When I took delivery, I asked the salesman how on earth they had ended up with so many. He told me in a low voice that a previous sales manager had screwed up order forms for a huge batch of cars that were supposed to be white, and that no one noticed until a couple transporters loaded with chartreuse Bolts actually showed up at the dealer. Long story short, there was no way to change the order. They eventually sold all the cars and you still see them more often than you'd expect in the area.
  • EAM3 Learned to drive in my parents' 1981 Maxima. Lovely car that seemed to do everything right. I can still hear the "Please turn off the lights" voice in my head since everyone wanted a demo of the newfangled talking car. A friend of the family had a manual transmission one and that thing was fun!
  • FreedMike That wagon is yummy.
  • Syke Thanks, somehow I missed that.