GM's 100-Year Anniversary to Remember Pt.1

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

But HOW will it be remembered? TTAC has more than a few automotive historians in our midst. They’re ready, willing and able to identify and anlyze the key moments in the company’s history, leading from complete market and (arguably) world dominance to lost market share and the brink of bankruptcy. (Think how many Death Watches there’d be if we’d started with the dismissal of the federal anti-trust suit that would have liberated Chevrolet from GM.) As we head towards GM’s 100th (tomorrow), The General’s spinmeisters are doing their damndest to promote a corporate history that shows strength, innovation and, above all, continuity (i.e. non-bankruptcy). But not every media outlet is The Detroit News. Some are willing to chronicle the catastrophe, albeit without editorial comment. The AP plays it straight, letting the facts speak for themselves. If history is written by the winners, GM PR’s take will not be triumphant. But it will be interesting.

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

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  • Morbo Morbo on Sep 15, 2008

    I cry not for GM's failure (nor the American horde of Toyandossan buyers). All things must die. What other companies from the turn of the century are still dominant in their business? Ford? GE - more of a bank now than an engineering concern. JP Morgan - again a bank Exxon / Standard Sisters - With declining oil assets, Exxon et al act more like banks than petrochemical concerns. GM must fail (or Ford or CLLC, but I'm a Ford guy so I root against GM) for the others to grow and evolve. In 100 years, I would expect only one (if any) of the J3 to survive, and not selling cars as their dominant model (Honda planes maybe).

  • FunkyD FunkyD on Sep 15, 2008

    I think the seminal year is GM's history is 1970, bar none. The UAW strike that year set the stage for the insane wage and job classification structure that GM is just now trying to crawl out of. 1970 was also the year of the Vega, which (along with the Pinto) cemented the perception that American carmakers can't build a decent small car. Of course, other models helped entrench said perception, but that is certainly where it started. Those bitter fruits started ripening in 1973, and help get GM to where it is today, staring over the Abyss.

  • Billc83 Billc83 on Sep 15, 2008

    Any company's centennial is cause for celebration. That being said, GM's decline and stagnation over the last 50 or so years has been unforgivable. GM, distilled to its most vital and major events, would include: -Its formation. GM is arguably the first automotive conglomerate. -Alfred Sloan’s innovative marketing system. Though his “car for every purse” would eventually be pissed away, his five tier system defined every make under GM’s watch, and established the hierarchy for the next 70 or so years. -Henry Ford’s stubbornness and ability to spot trends in the market place. When the Model T was initially produced, its was a revolution. However, the Model T was allowed to stagnate (we’d say “withering on the vine”) for nearly two decades, while more and more competent competition came along. Some would argue that this point really reprsents the failing of Ford, but each company doesn't live in a bubble, and their histories are intertwined. GM seized the reigns of the automotive industry with its brand structure, and Ford was playing second fiddle ever since. -The ill-fated companion lines of the late Twenties. Some may feel these should be only footnotes in automotive history, but I feel they represent a time where GM would take proactive measures to try to fix any problems. Sloan recognized that there were definite price gaps between the brands and attempted to fix this problem. Introduced right before the Great Depression, only LaSalle and Pontiac lasted past the Depression’s duration, and only Pontiac is with us today. Viking, Marquette, and Oakland are now but automotive memories. -The hiring of Harley Earl and subsequent creation of the Art and Color Division. Never before had styling played such an important role when developing an automobile; styling was often an afterthought to the technical aspects of the machine. -The original Corvette. Perhaps GM’s first attempt at an “import-fighter,” the original Corvette was designed in an attempt to combat exotic Jaguars and Alfa Romeos. The original Corvette missed the bullseye, but was steadily improved upon, soldiering on to become GM’s single strongest entity. -The post-war boom. The built-up demand for new automobiles, the market eagerly bought automobiles during the Fifties. In 1954, Ford began its famous “blitz,” cranking up production. Chevrolet responded in kind, and this turned to be cataclysmic for the few remaining independent automakers. Never again would GM be as influential. I’ll take a break here for a brief non-sequiter. I think an interesting foreshadow of GM’s decline lies in the tailfins of its Cadillac brand. The first tailfins that appeared in 1948 were mere stubs. Over the years, the tailfins grew ever bigger and more brash, peaking in 1959. Many deemed the ‘59 tailfins too be too big (I personally love the styling of the ‘59 Caddies), foreshadowing the eventual anti-trust cases and talks of splitting us the company in the 60s. In 1960 and following years, the tailfins became progressively smaller, foreshadowing GM’s own decline in market share with the arrival of the imports. Though certainly not intentional, I always found it kind of ironic that a small slice of General Motors’ overall history could be found in mere tailfins. But I digress… Trends then point to a slow, steady decline, not unlike The Simpsons after their glory years: -1959 was also a pivotal year for GM because it began what would eventually become complete badge-engineering. Though only the underpinnings would share common components, this would later give way to engines and body panels, establishing one of GM’s current quandaries. -The 1970s are so muddled with problems for GM I feel the warrant their own bullet point. As already stated, the 1970 UAW strike’s long term ramifications can still be felt today. Oil crunches and GM’s subsequent failure to develop a competent small car for the times, in conjunction with the rise of Honda and Toyota (making a name for themselves specifically by producing competent small cars) wrecked havoc on the General. Once the imports gained a foothold in the small market segment, they would continue to build upon their success, at the expense of GM‘s (and other domestics‘) market share.. -The J-Cars of the 80s (this rant may get a bit emotional - you have been warned!). Originally conceptualized as an “import-fighter,” the J-Car fiasco will go down in history as one of the final nails in GM’s coffin. Though Alfred Sloan’s original tier and pricing system had already been crippled, it was the J-Cars that finally pissed away any remnants of Sloan’s original idea of “a car for every pocketbook.” The Chevrolet Cavalier, Pontiac 2000, Oldsmobile Firenza, and Buick Skyhawk were priced literally hundreds of dollars from one another, with obscenely limited differences in product. The Cimarron (by Cadillac) was obviously nothing more than a tarted-up Cavalier. I have said it before and I’m sure I will say it again: the Cimarron is the single, most destructive failure Cadillac has ever endured in terms of brand equity. Worse than the V8-6-4 engine. Worse than the despicable diesels. Worse than the downsized Caddies of ‘84. The Cimarron single-handedly ruined Cadillac’s remaining credibility as a high-end luxury car, and the consequences can still be felt more than two decades later! It was the Jaguar X-Type of its time, only Cadillac didn’t have the prestige of the famed leaper and the Cavalier was available in the States right alongside the Cimarron, whereas the Ford Mondeo wasn’t. -Roger Smith’s darling brand, named after the sixth planet in the solar system. While Saturn wasn’t exactly the worst idea (a new type of car to combat the imports, with exceptional dealer experience that would hopefully trickle to the other brands), it suffered from a awful execution combined with internal pressures against it. GM has sunk billions into Saturn, meanwhile Saturn has never made a profit. GM had the brass to cut its losses with the failing companion makes in 1930, yet Saturn continues to survive to this day. I wanted to keep it at ten bullet points, but I found that to be impossible even after removing some. There is so much more that can be said (especially regarding GM’s decline). Frankly, it’s GM’s Centennial, a moment few companies ever reach (Studebaker did!), and they deserve a congratulations for that, if nothing else.

  • Pleiter Pleiter on Sep 15, 2008

    Roger B. Smith cookin' the books; Stempels' deer in the headlights afterwards.