Editorial: General Motors Death Watch 256: Clutch Players

Robert Farago
by Robert Farago

The mainstream media tends to fumble the metaphorical football on the symbolic goal line. With fewer than twenty-four hours left before General Motors files for Chapter 11, the MSM is set to go back, Jack, and do it again. Instead of excoriating GM’s management for not taking in more money than they spent, they’re parsing the American automaker’s bankruptcy as a “sign of the times.” Leading this electronic charge of the heat without light brigade: P. J. O’Rourke. Writing for the Wall Street Journal, O’Rourke paints GM’s dissolution as confirmation that America’s love affair with the automobile is, finally, dead. Rubbish.

Quick digression: Yesterday, I was looking for something to healthy to eat at Six Flags New England. As you might imagine, I’d have had better luck trying to win an enormous Tweety Bird by tossing small plastic rings at the necks of custom-made, ring-aversive milk jugs. As I consumed a greasy hot dog on a butter infused bun, I thought, well, that’s the way it is.

If these teeming throngs wanted a healthy salad or a chilled fruit cup, Six Flags would sell them. The vast majority of their coaster-lovin’ customers want fried foods and sugary drinks. Six Flags has a business to run. So they give their customers what they want. Tough luck for me. The same inescapable economic logic applies to the manufacturers of P. J. O’Rourke’s diss-missed automotive “appliances.”

Contrary to the prosaic pistonhead’s rant, no one forced Americans out of their charismatic, high horsepower barges into boring and bland vehicles. Truth be told, the average consumer wanted personal transportation that they didn’t have to think about it. The automakers who best provided these vehicles thrived. The ones who could not do so, both consistently and profitably, did not.

It’s one of those ipso facto deals. If American car buyers didn’t place reliability above all, they’d still be driving union-built be-finned rust buckets that required constant mechanical attention. The fact that Toyota, Honda, Nissan and Hyundai are solvent, while GM is not, is a simple reflection of the transplanted automakers’ ability to give the people what they want.

Never mind the bailout or O’Rourke’s pining for more “adventurous” times. The free market has spoken. GM must die.

Was this desire for aesthetically neutral four-wheeled appliances nurture (roadside stranding, lousy dealer service, inconvenience and expense) or nature (if I wanted to be a mechanic I’d be one)?

O’Rourke blames suburban ennui (i.e., car as cupholder) and “busybodies of the environmentalist, new urbanist, utopian communitarian ilk.” He bemoans the end of the legacy of the swaggering, charisma-loving “romantic fools” who created America’s automotive giants. Yes, well, it was these self-same car guys that condemned GM to its ultimate fate as a tax-sucking zombie.

Former GM CFO and ex-CEO Rick Wagoner is [rightly] blamed for pissing away billions on ill-advised acquisitions. He merits condemnation for refusing to man-up and declare bankruptcy when the company could have done so under its own steam. And he deserves his place in infamy for handing the keys to the executive washroom to the federal government. Still, ultimately, the beancounters didn’t kill GM. The car guys did.

The car guys failed to commit the company to designing and building the small range of bland, reliable, competitive, cost-effective automotive products it needed to survive. They were drunk on pickups. High (and mighty) on SUVs. When it came to more pedestrian metal, GM’s senior (i.e., divisional) car guys threw whatever they had against the wall to see what would stick. Not much did, and they didn’t care.

Don’t tell me that Wagoner and his predecessors tied the car guys’ hands behind their backs, forcing them to accept badge-engineered mediocrity. They were happy enough to go along for the ride. And why not? They were hugely compensated cogs in a corporate culture where failure was impossible, gorging on unimaginable riches simply for keeping the status quo. Speaking of which . . .

It should never be forgotten that Car Czar Bob Lutz squandered GM’s last remaining chance at a genuine, product-led turnaround. Lutz doubled-down on a half-assed redesign of GM’s trucks, imported sales stinkers and commissioned poorly-developed niche-mobiles without a hope in hell of mass success. Lutz’ highly-touted Chevrolet Malibu was a singular vehicle; it was also too little too late.

Here’s the funny, horrible thing: you can hear echoes of Bob Lutz in O’Rourke’s paradise lost essay. Like Lutz, O’Rourke believes that American car culture is practically dead. Both men mistake the end of a certain kind of enthusiasm—their own—for a wider malaise. They don’t understand that automotive enthusiasts will always be a relatively insignificant minority of the American public; tens of millions of motorists want cheap, reliable, comfortable, practical, safe, not-too-thirsty, not-ugly transportation.

No one’s asking P. J. O’Rourke to respect appliance drivers. But GM’s inability to do so was, in the final analysis, the death of them.

Robert Farago
Robert Farago

More by Robert Farago

Join the conversation
2 of 44 comments
  • Dynamic88 Dynamic88 on Jun 01, 2009
    I agree with RF here. We all pine for the exciting cars of the 60s, but we tend to forget that there were a lot more Chevy Biscaynes, Ford Custom 500s and Plymouth Fury IIs then we care to remember. ... Very true. There never was a time when most cars were exciting. Most of the cars ever built have been ugly and dull. Just like most of the refrigerators.
  • King Bojack King Bojack on Jun 01, 2009

    You used "Going-out-of-business-until-Renault-saved-our-asses" Nissan as a case of solvency? HA! Ok, so let me get this straight? It wasn't Red Ink Rick or other finance guys who ruined the car industry but the car guys who didn't do a good enough job standing up to their bosses? Heh, that's as absurd a concept as a truly free market (which doesn't exist but in economic fantasy land) that can actually dictate if GM dies or not. Besides, GMs real death knell is hideous debt and legacy costs. They still have shit loads of revenue coming in (even today after the bankruptcy/bail out drama) so that if they could get the cost part of revenue-cost=profit low enough they can make cash even selling one solitary car.

  • VoGhost Fantastic work by Honda design. When I first saw the pictures, I thought "Is that a second gen Acura NSX?"
  • V16 2025 VW GLI...or 2025 Honda Civic SI? Same target audience, similar price points. Both are rays of sun in the gray world of SUV'S.
  • FreedMike Said this before and I'll say it again: I'm not that exercised about this whole "pay for a subscription" thing, as long as the deal's reasonable. And here's how you make it reasonable: offer it a monthly charge. Let's say that adaptive headlights are a $500 option on this vehicle, and the subscription is $15 a month, or $540 over a three year lease. So you try the feature for a month, and if you like it, you keep it; if you don't, then you discontinue it, like a Netflix subscription. In any case, you didn't get charged $500 up front the feature. That's not a bad deal.In my case, let's say VW offers an over the air chip reflash that gives me another 25 hp. The total price of the upgrade is $1,000 (which is what a reflash would cost you in the aftermarket). If they offered me a one time monthly subscription for $50 to try it out, I'd take it. In other words, maybe the news isn't all bad.
  • 2ACL A good car, but - at least in this configuration -not one that should command a premium. Its qualities just aren't as enduring as those of Honda's contemporary sports cars. For better or worse, this is a formula they remain able to replicate.
  • Jalop1991 I just read that Tesla's profits are WAY down "as the electric vehicle company has faced both more EV competition from established automakers and a slowing of overall EV sales growth." This Cadillac wouldn't help Tesla at all, but the slowing market of EV sales overall means this should be a halo/boutique car. Regardless, yes, they should make it.