Editorial: The GM Boner Collection

Michael Milch
by Michael Milch
editorial the gm boner collection

There are x+1 reasons GM is where it is today, with x being a very large number. Those reasons have been hacked and stacked here and elsewhere: a chief executive so hesitant it’s a wonder he didn’t daily swaddle himself in Cottonelle; a Board of Directors so frightened of change that they never swapped out the pine paneling and shag carpet in the board room; and a union stuck so far in the past that Bakelite seems to them unspeakably futuristic. To paraphrase JFK, while success may have a thousand fathers, GM’s defeat also has a thousand fathers—and a network of 6,200 dealers.

But to only blame the current crisis on management is to miss the broader picture: for more than a generation, with few exceptions, GM just hasn’t made cars that inspire people. While factors like fuel economy and build quality no doubt contributed to the slide, it’s been 30 years since GM had a stable of pulse-quickening, shorts-constricting cars. Consequently, GM failed to convert decades worth of excitable, reachable teens and young adults into the sort of loyalists and enthusiasts that sustained the company this long in the first place.

The more Geritol-ed among us remember a time when things were not thus. In the Harley-olithic Era, the good Lord saw fit to provide not just the ’53 Corvette (dayenu!), but also the Skylark, the Rocket 88, the ’57 Chevy, the ’59 Caddy and the Eldorado (dayenu times five!). Our bounty was, um, bountiful for the next ten or fifteen years, too, with the muscle car boom that gave us the GTO and Camaro. If you were lucky enough to come up then, GM was synonymous with sleek and sexy and bold and daring.

And then came the late ’70s, when GM brought us to the edge of the Great Mediocre Desert and, feeling the warmth of the sand, walked right in.

I was born in those lost years, and I’ve never known a time when GM wasn’t wandering the desert. My generation never got its GTO, its ’59 Caddy. We got Impalas, yes, but they were rusty and rickety, not cool and threatening. My friend’s creepy, chain-smoking dad drove the kind of Bonneville driven by creepy, chain-smoking dads. Our Olds were for the elderly.

Those cars thrummed exactly no one’s chords. Worse yet, they were as reliable as someone on Intervention.

In 1950, the Great and Powerful Earl said, “It is a matter of record that poor styling or improperly timed styling has proved financially disastrous to some automobile manufacturers.”

Now, I’m not the brightest rocket surgeon in the picnic shed, but it seems that was a lesson never learned. And during this Craptastic Period in came the Japanese. Honda and Toyota didn’t compete on design; they fought it out with quality. Perhaps their cars were less in—or aspirational—but at least you’d get out of the dealer’s driveway before your feet went through the floorboards. GM never fought that battle, and so when they all but gave up on design, too, the war was lost.

The proof is in the pudding, and the pudding is high school parking lots. Sure, you may still see some guys taking a Huggies to their babies, but you’ll definitely see row after row of Corollas, Elantras, and Whogivesashitimas. GM’s lost a generation of passionate brand loyalists—the sort of loyalists who popped their first boner over a ’58 Impala, not nakednymphs.net. To this generation, a car’s a car. A tranny with limited differential is just a guy in a dress who hasn’t cut off his nuts yet. The appliance-ification is basically complete.

Today’s Generals are certainly better than those of a few moons ago as far as reliability goes, but, man, Garrison Keillor is more exciting than the average Chevy. Were it not for the memory of those older, cooler cars—the fast and aggressive, the sleek and the styled, the innovative and inspirational—GM would not be around today.

That’s well worth noting, and quickly. GM makes a point of saying that their cars are now as reliable as anyone’s. But “as good” and “good enough” are not the same thing, and customers have 30 years of pent up distrust. If GM is to get customers back into its (culled) showrooms, it needs to banish bland, or there won’t be another 30 years. A Malibu can’t be an Impala can’t be an Aveo can’t be a Cobalt. And this commitment can’t be just a Skystice here and a CTS there; if it’s true that the General’s motors earn them a tie with the imports, inspiring design running through their entire line should be what puts GM over the top.

Pretty will get customers in the door. Distinctive will earn GM another look. Erections will make people remember. If GM is to survive and (gulp) thrive, they have to set their designers free, and give them the freedom to live into Harley Earl’s legacy. They have to en-boner-fy or die.

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  • Njdave Njdave on May 13, 2009

    I find it kind of amazing that no one has mentioned the public finding out about the secret memo's showing the collusion of the big 3 to make cars that failed right after the warranty expired as a reason for the downfall of Detroit. I was just a kid, but I remember how disgusted my parents were when that came out. That ended years of them being GM loyalists. They had even put up with crappy GM cars that stranded on the road far too often, until they found out it was at least in part deliberate. I do agree with thte point about styling though. People who grew up loving big Detroit iron may not think that an Accod has style, lot's of young people disagree. My 2 sons both lust after Accords. They like them because there are lot's pf aftermarket mods they can put on them, lots of tuning options, and the people they know who drag race are doing it in tuned Accords. Different strokes for deifferent generations. I think it would also help if GM and the others were more tuner friendly. Instead of doing their level best to lock everyone out of their car chips, if they allowed people to play with them they would build more interest in their cars. Today, you need a Lingenfelder-level operation to crack an GM ECU. Everyone and his brother is retuning Honda ECUs. Honda may not approve openly, and they tell you not to do it, but they don't try to make it impossible.

  • Wsn Wsn on May 13, 2009

    I think the author gave too much credit to GM cars of the glory days. Those GM cars were desirable simply because there weren't more desirable alternatives. Just imagine, what if Chairman Obama bans the sale of any non-American branded cars. Suddenly, Malibu/Solstice/CTS-V etc. would become the leaders in the market.

  • Inside Looking Out I used True car once in 2014 and got a great deal. The difference is that you do nothing but dealers call you. No haggling but you can get the same deal browsing inventories on dealers websites. It just matter of convenience, Rich people delegate job to someone else because time costs more.
  • Jeff S Adam on Rare Classic Cars has a new purchase a 1968 LTD Brougham just over 9k original miles. He really finds some gems.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZK8R-LhM1LM&ab_channel=RareClassicCars%26AutomotiveHistory
  • Jeff S @Lou_BC--Diamonds are not really rare DeBeers dominates the diamond market and created the market with advertising starting in the 1930s thru the 40s. Before that time diamonds were for the most part considered for the wealthy and diamond wedding rings were not that common. Go back 100 years and most women wore wedding bands made of gold, silver, or other metals. DeBeers dominating the diamond market also controls the supply of diamonds keeping the prices higher by restricting supply. Sound familiar? Oil companies have learned to restrict supply of oil as well.https://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/diamond-de-beers-marketing-campaign
  • Statikboy So they named it after the worst cracker."Perhaps that’s why the autonomous dream appeals to so many - they’ve never experienced satisfaction, or even fun, whilst operating a motorcar.""This 2022 Mazda CX-30 Turbo, for example, can certainly handle the drudgery of the daily commute with aplomb but can make a detour on a twisty two-lane a bit more enjoyable."While the autonomous dream doesn't appeal to me at all, I think the reason that it does appeal to so many is because it theoretically has the potential to make the drudgery of the daily commute a bit more enjoyable.
  • Jeff S Arthur and I might be in the minority but we miss cars like this. We will never see cars like this again and it is what it is. I did like driving my mothers 72 Sedan Deville and her 84 Chrysler 5th Avenue with leather interior and Boise Dolby stereo along with some of the other luxury cars I drove from this era. At least I got to experience them and if I want more I can always read Corey's well written articles and watch Adam on Rare Classic Cars.
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