By on August 13, 2011

Divide $64 million by about 10,000. What do you get? I was a liberal-arts major, but I figure the answer is “About $6400.” That’s a lot more than $850, right? Hop into this here Silverado with me, dear reader, and let’s take a ride through another adventure in GM’s mismanaged past.

By 2001, the use of composites in pickup-truck beds had become almost commonplace. Ford’s Ranger “Splash” and F-150 “FlareSide” had featured plastic outer shells, while GM’s own step-side beds had composites below the trim line. The advantages of composite (which is to say, plastic) construction for truck beds seemed obvious: they were lighter, they couldn’t rust, they were dent-resistant, and when all was said and done they would probably end up being much cheaper. The only question was: Which truck maker would pull the trigger on a totally composite bed first?

That question was answered in 2001 when GM completed a $64M expansion at its Fort Wayne, IN plant to build the “Pro-Tec Composite Truck Bed”, as pictured above. It was available as a short-bed only and cost an additional $850 on half-ton (1500 series) trucks. For that money, the Chevy (or GMC, although in my research I couldn’t find a single example of a GMC Pro-Tec) truck buyer received a genuine industry first: a fully composite bed with a built-in bedliner. No rust, no easy dents, no scratches, and no need to Line-X the thing for additional hick street cred. Plus, it was fifty pounds lighter! It was an an improvement in pretty much every sense, and GM went on to beat the competition senseless with it…

…Well, not really. The General’s projections of 50,000 units per year were off by a factor of ten. In his 2003 article Boxed Out, Brian Corbett tries to find out why:

About 5,000 Silverados featuring Pro-Tec have been sold since the option became available last year. GM expected to sell some 50,000 Silverados annually with the $850 Pro-Tec option. It’s another setback for a program that was delayed at launch by several months due to surface anomalies. But past quality issues aren’t to blame for slow sales. GM says it has to do a better job of marketing Pro-Tec. “The dealers that are stocking (Pro-Tec-equipped Silverados) seem to be selling them at a reasonable rate,” explains John Schwegman, Silverado marketing manager. “We’re just not getting enough dealers to take their first one.”

This is a harsh reminder of what every so-called “industry expert” should remember: the customers for GM, Ford, Toyota, et al aren’t people, they are dealers. If dealers won’t buy something for stock, that “something” won’t sell. Plus, they are mendacious:

Also, commissions for sales personnel might be higher for a Silverado with a $225 bed liner that’s mounted at the dealership rather than a factory-installed Pro-Tec Silverado.

As a former Ford salesman, I can reinforce Corbett’s guess here. Selling an aftermarket bedliner was worth $50 to us. Selling an $850 factory option was usually worth absolutely nothing to the guys on the proverbial front line.

The Pro-Tec option lasted two model years before disappearing from the order sheets. Total volume was about 10,000, meaning that GM lost tens of millions of dollars on the operation. Like the other gee-whiz, industry-exclusive system debuted at about the same time — Delphi’s “Quadrasteer”, which was a $5,995 option on trucks during the same period but eventually ended up being discounted to a third of that before being discontinued shortly after Pro-Tec — it was a great idea that didn’t sell worth a damn. Why not?

It’s always easy to Saturday-afternoon-quarterback GM’s ineptitude, but this one seems particularly open to criticism. Why was Pro-Tec sold in one bed length, that bed length being one that rarely appears on work trucks? Why wasn’t it priced more competitively, or included as standard on the entry-level vehicles the way the slugger-proof Work Truck grill was, as seen below?

Had I been placed in charge of Chevrolet at the time, I would have made the Pro-Tec standard on either the work trucks or the very top-end model, with the steel bed a no-cost option for the Cro-Magnon plumbers/gentleman farmers out there. It’s hard to believe that “non-promoted $850 option” was the brightest idea the GM marketing people had.

Among those legendary bottom-feeders of the Internet, truck-forum contributors, Pro-Tec has passed into the realm of legend. A search for “Pro-Tec truck bed” will tell you that:

  • It cost $3000.
  • You had to be a friend of the dealer to get it.
  • Thousands of them have broken into tiny plastic pieces.
  • It wasn’t nothing but that there Avalanche bed.
  • You couldn’t put a cap on it, put anything heavy in it, or LET IT GET COLD.

You get the idea, right? Ten years from now, people will probably think they were “secret GM prototypes that got out of the factory one weekend.”

Pro-Tec turned out to be a costly mistake for Chevrolet and GMC, but that didn’t stop Toyota from being the next up to bat. The current-generation Tacoma has a composite truck bed with steel side skins for aesthetic/paint retention reasons. No extra charge, no other choice, no big deal. Unfortunately for Toyota, feedback has been negative; if you think the GM forum guys hate composite beds and/or don’t understand them, Google “Tacoma cab rattle” and see what you get…

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33 Comments on “When GM Couldn’t Think Outside The Box: Remembering Pro-Tec...”


  • avatar
    Flybrian

    I discovered this genius feature when we got an ’03 extended cab in inventory similar to the one pictured.

    If they would’ve pitched this a la Saturn’s polymer panels, could’ve been a different story.

    But again, take rate by greedy dealers content with supplying inferior bedliners could’ve quashed that, too.

  • avatar
    mazder3

    Back when these two options came out I also hoped that GM would make them available on a reqular cab longbed. No rust and easy to back up with a trailer. A landscapers dream. Then, for the hoon, quadrasteer on a stepside with an 8.1 would have been a hoot! SS496!

  • avatar
    ExPatBrit

    It’s all about the dealer margin.

    I see a lot of that in my present job, despite newer cheaper more reliable products with shorter lead times our dealers continue to push the stuff they can make the most money on. Every now and then we have a “this is how it is going to be” discussion.

    The only way to deal with this would have been to make the older steel beds “unavailable”.

    GM still suffers from this problem today, the local dealer tv and radio ads running here still push the trucks and mention the cars as an afterthought if at all.

    The dealers have way to much power over GMs business.

    • 0 avatar
      segfault

      “…the local dealer tv and radio ads running here still push the trucks and mention the cars as an afterthought if at all.”

      Yes, we hear ads about the Silverado All-Star Edition and then there’s some blurb about Buick having two models which get an unimpressive 30 MPG highway so you can “pass up your friends at the pump.”

  • avatar
    nrd515

    A friend of mine bought a used truck a couple years ago, and it had Quadrasteer on it. I really liked it, but even at $2000, it was overpriced, IMO. $1000, and I would have bought it.

  • avatar
    lawstud

    You know when I want to beat a dead horse I go after GM. After all a company that has failed in the marketplace is ripe with mistakes. One only wonders if anything has changed….

    Time will tell whether they can make it through this slump in the double dip of a recession / major depression coming.

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    Jack,

    the problem with making it longer, or standard, quite likely had to do with the limits of the process (it may not have been possible to shoot a longer box), and investment vs. capacity, respectively.

    To my mind, and I’ve no proof, GM was doing a 64M$ test, engineering, or brand-management, suspected this would go like gangbusters, somebody else, perhaps finance, asked for the proof … when it couldn’t be prooved, 64 double large was allocated for market-testing purposes.

    So why not go “all-in” and force the market to accept the plastic beds? This could display a lack of confidence in the durability of the product. With such a low take-rate, if the beds did fractionate into a million pieces, GM would have been able to handle the costs of a warranty-recall, and the attendant bad publicity … if every one of the trucks had to come back for a new bed, this would have broken the bank tóút swéét!

    BTW, in simple parlance, “composite” is taken to mean plastic, but in actuality, a “composite structure” is “composed” of different elements.

    Depending on how one looks at it, a composite structure can be a plastic reinforced with something like glass fibres (Polyamides, like PA6.6 are very popular in automotive applications), or a matrix material infused and surrounded with a binding material (carbon-fibre structures are most commonly brought to mind).

    In the case of a bed, it was likely a RIM (Reaction-Injection-Moulding), or SMC (Sheet-Moulded-Compound) structure, these were the two processes that were burining up the airwaves in Detroit in the decade leading up to 2001.

    There were a lot of attempts at large plastic structures. Ca. 1985, Ford made a couple of Ranger prototypes with a “two-piece” plastic cab, I remember seeing one on display at my university. Here’s a link (also has a pic of a Saturn prototype I don’t recall seeing before):

    http://books.google.com/books?id=MeUDAAAAMBAJ&pg=PA37&lpg=PA37&dq=ford+ranger+plastic+cab&source=bl&ots=r0EMz1sI5I&sig=LHfOBREzAJUeev3tDH-LpI3z-rk&hl=en&ei=fcRHTu68GIHqOeOwkfED&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=10&ved=0CGAQ6AEwCQ#v=onepage&q=ford%20ranger%20plastic%20cab&f=false

    Then, about a decade later, IIRC, Husky put-up a big building (Novi, MI, on/near the S.E. corner of 12 MI and the CSX Mainline intersection, that was planned to make some big structures for Chrysler, via Magna, there was a lot of hype at the time “installed a huge, maybe biggest ever, test press”, and then after much fanfare, time, and money, the project (to paraphrase George Carlin) fizzed, fazzed, and became a nada-producing rip-sh1t-flop (I used to drive home on W-96, and crossing the bridge over the rail-line, I would look down that treeless corridor and see that building in the distance, lights on in the high-bay windows, accompanied by a large red sign and wonder what great things were going on in that building).

    If you can stop laughing, or crying, over the 1st paragraph, later in the article is the first discussion of the plant and technology:
    http://news.google.com/newspapers?

    id=ww0wAAAAIBAJ&sjid=3wMEAAAAIBAJ&pg=1825,315492&dq=husky+novi&hl=en

    And a more recent article, after all the “we’re moving production to China but remain committed to the West tra-la-la, ends, with the announcement of the end of the line for the Novi facility:

    http://plasticsnews.com/headlines2.html?cat=1&id=1234989820

    Back to “composite”, the other kind of composite structures, unlike those composed of radically different materials (like plastic and glass, or carbon-fibre with epoxy), may be composed of like materials (albeit with different chemistries or coming off different production processes).

    For you consideration, is the “Composite Camshaft”. Not a spec of plastic, glass, carbon-fibre, or epoxy in it. It’s all steel. But in all those Ford camshafts, there are (depending on if it was a Romeo, Windsor, Cleveland, or Cologne engine) 5 (V-6) basic components) quill, lobes, thrust ring, end-plugs, sprocket) with different steel chemistries, and basic forming processes (welded-straightened tube, warm-forging, and for the last 3, all from powdered-sintered metal).

    Finally, back to plastic boxes, one of the big players in the SMC, game, and IIRC, the producer of the Toyota box, was the Budd Company, which, after ThyssenKrupp managed it down and restructured it around, finally blew-itself-up and was sold off in pieces to people who could better run the pieces:

    http://www.netcomposites.com/newsitem.asp?id=3879

    http://www.deloitte.com/view/en_XA/xa/transactions/412e5724a82fb110VgnVCM100000ba42f00aRCRD.htm

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      Why the heck the moderation for my comments?

      • 0 avatar
        Jack Baruth

        Hi Robert,

        It was because you had multiple links and the spam checker snagged it automatically.

        I know “composite” doesn’t always mean “plastic”, but in this case you could argue that it does :)

      • 0 avatar
        Robert.Walter

        Crap editor locked me out as I was doing a final edit…

        After the “laughing or crying” paragraph, I was adding in the following:

        After the project failed to produce anything marketable, a round of DCx management shuffles and budget cuts, led to the demise of the project:

        http://wardsautoworld.com/ar/auto_chrysler_backs_away/

        And at the end, an additional interpretation of GM’s actions in the plastic part experience:

        GM was no different from other major OEM that were hot on the topic of going plastic for weight, noise, manufacturing reasons, but until now, and despite many attempts, and mucho denero el investo, nobody has been able to do large-large-single-part (hoods and liftgates don’t count because they are multi-part – essentially composite composite assembles – and are not the kind of large I am speaking of) composite component manufacturing on a large (profitable) scale.

        So, to those that would criticize GM for this adventure and hold it up as a sign of mismanagement, I would posit that it shows a willingness to innovate, and take a (limited) risk, where neither the processes or the market were well understood (same for Quadra-Steer), and to test the idea, and the market acceptance for it, they dipped a toe into the pond before diving-in…

        Here, GM really did no worse than, and maybe even better than, other OEMs in trying to bring a new way of doing something to the market.

        In business, as in life, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes you’ve got to sing, uh, well, just cut your losses and not double-down on an idea.

        Taking risk, but also knowing when to bail, is also a laudable management skill.

      • 0 avatar
        Robert.Walter

        Hi Jack, I agree w/you plastic is easier to say and to write! ;o)

        BTW, because of the links, a lot of text in my post is lost due to truncation on the RH side of the screen. Kinda wrecks (what I thought might be) an interesting post. Anyway to fix that?

    • 0 avatar
      Les

      You might wanna try using something like http://tinyurl.com/ to pare-down those ridiculously huge links to something more manageable.

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    So what year did the S10 get a totally composite bed for the “stepside” model?

    • 0 avatar
      Szyznyk

      I don’t think anyone who had owned multiple S10s wanted anything else in the truck made out of GM plastic. They still sell aftermarket seat recline levers at the carwash.

  • avatar
    golden2husky

    TTAC ought to do a story about Quadrasteer. I don’t know how many of you were ever privileged enough to ever be in one of these trucks, but the agility of the vehicle was amazing. I was a passenger but the nimbleness (if you could ever use such a word on such a large truck this would be the time) was incredible. This would be a great example of technology that should have made it but didn’t. Many may recall the 4WS of some small Japanese cars in the 80’s. Those systems did not last in the marketplace but I believe that was because those cars really were not lacking for maneuverability. It was more of a high tech tool when one was not really needed. Quadrasteer was not like that at all. The improvement in maneuverability was dramatic. The failure of Quadrasteer was purely a pricing and marketing thing. I do recall the early ads for the system, but anybody who went to the dealer was no doubt blown out of the water by the price tag and fact that you had to take a lot of other stuff that you did not want. Again, a classic botched GM launch. The engineers stepped up as they usually do, only to see corporate screw things up. Had this system been priced as a stand alone option and with a reasonable price tag, dealers would have purchased QS trucks for inventory. Once buyers demanded the option, GM could have raised the price (think Ford and the Explorer in the early days) and had a nice cash cow on their hands. Instead we have another example of what could have been a success join the other screw ups on the GM list…

  • avatar
    geozinger

    @Robert Walter: “So, to those that would criticize GM for this adventure and hold it up as a sign of mismanagement, I would posit that it shows a willingness to innovate, and take a (limited) risk, where neither the processes or the market were well understood (same for Quadra-Steer), and to test the idea, and the market acceptance for it, they dipped a toe into the pond before diving-in…

    Here, GM really did no worse than, and maybe even better than, other OEMs in trying to bring a new way of doing something to the market.

    In business, as in life, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes you’ve got to sing, uh, well, just cut your losses and not double-down on an idea.

    Taking risk, but also knowing when to bail, is also a laudable management skill.”

    Absolutely excellent analysis of the situation. And coincidentally, life, too.

  • avatar
    340-4

    If a dealer won’t order a vehicle equipped with a particular feature, it can’t sell, no matter the innovation or superiority of that feature.

    And that feature will go away.

    Doesn’t matter if people want that feature. Would you order a truck with quadrasteer without even having a chance to test drive one? Nope.

    My local Buick dealership will probably never stock a GS. My local Subaru dealership refuses to stock a Legacy GT or a WRX. My Ford dealership sells Toyota on the same lot, and I’m convinced they only order loaded Fords (and perhaps a handful a year at that) to use to steer people into Toyotas. My Chevy dealership is finally ordering cars in volumes larger than one or two gratuitous Impalas or Malibus next to three rows of trucks. We have no Cadillac dealership anymore.

    Dealers have too much control over what sells. We covet what we see every day, said Mr. Lecter. People can’t covet what they can’t see.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      +1 And very few people have the patience to drive long distances to test a car with the features they “might” want. I am someone who would do that, simply because (like most of the B&B) I am an enthusiast when it comes to motorized transportation.

    • 0 avatar
      NulloModo

      Inventory management isn’t easy. Ford publishes recommended product mixes for various trim levels, rapid specs, and options, but what flies in one place might not work in another. We don’t stock 4wd/AWD vehicles except for trucks, Expeditions and Explorers because there is no demand for it here. Once in a blue moon I might have someone looking for an AWD Escape, but even if we had one on the lot whose to say it would be the right color with the right equipment. Up north AWD Escapes, Edges, and even Fusions are pretty easy to find, and in the case of the CUVs make up the majority of the inventory.

      Lincoln put out a special ‘Limited Edition’ package on the MKX that features odd metallic bronzed leather. We ended up with a couple and figured they would sit around forever due to most of our Lincoln clientèle being rather conservative. We washed one up and put it in the showroom and it sold the next day for near full sticker. We replaced it with the other one and it sold within a week for a pretty solid profit as well. We then ordered more MKXs with that package because the demand was proven. Going the other way we ended up with a couple of manual transmission Fusion SEs that sat around forever until we finally dealer traded both away, so we don’t order manual transmission Fusions anymore.

      It’s nice to have a good mix, and sometimes having a vehicle that nobody else does can lead to a better sale because the customer can’t play you against another dealer if you have the only one. At the same time, no one wants to get stuck with tons of any particular model with a feature that no one wants to pay for and to end up having to sell vehicles at a loss to get rid of them.

      Sometimes a feature or trim just takes time to catch on. The original Edge Sport didn’t sell very well because it was just a (fairly pricey) appearance package. The 2011 Edge Sport does sell well both because the appearance was further differentiated and because there is now increased performance. We didn’t order many 2011 Edge Sports because we knew how slow the original model sold. When we realized how many people were coming in looking for the 2011 models and factory ordering them when they couldn’t find them we decided to increase the amount we ordered for stock to meet demand.

      The better dealers will take some chances on new products or features to at least feel out how the demand will be. Those that are paying attention will constantly adjust and fine tune the inventory mix to try to have the most in demand versions of each product and keep things moving. There are still probably some dinosaurs out there who still order like they did 10 or 20 years ago due to some ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ mentality, but those places tend to be stuck in the past when it comes to the sales process and customer service as well, so you likely wouldn’t be wanting to do business with them even if they did have the model you were looking for.

    • 0 avatar
      Les

      I live in a small town in Oklahoma, we have One dealership in town.. a Ford Dealership, it’s a 50+ mile drive to the nearest non-Ford dealership. On the roads out here I see Kias and Hyundais and Chevys and Dodge… and precious few Fords.

      Could be that’s because at the local Ford dealership their used lot has a very eclectic mix of.. well.. just about everything. At any one time I’ve seen everything from a Chevy Cobalt to a Land Rover to a Nissan 370Z, and it changes all the time. Meanwhile, their new lot is almost nothing but F-150 and F-350 trucks… and it hardly changes at all.

      They had a Fiesta on the lot, once, back at the start of the year wen they first came out. The Fiesta got snapped-up in about a week.

      • 0 avatar
        Robert.Walter

        What’s interesting, is that Fiestas and F-series sell to two different types of customers.

        I’m surprised that the boys in Dearborn aren’t telling that dealer that they appreciate all the profit from the F-series sales, but that they should be doing a little more to move other Ford nameplates (and then incentivising them to do it.)

        I’m not down on all the details in the retail business, but would be happy to know why such a thing doesn’t happen.

      • 0 avatar
        Les

        What F-series sales? The sea of F-series grills on the new-car side of the lot hasn’t changed by any significant degree since the start of the year, that Fiesta that came in at about the same time most of their new F-series inventory did sold in about a week.. despite having a Blah eggshell-ish paintjob.

        Where I live is very, very rural. People around here who buy trucks most definitely Need trucks, but they also tend to have 10-20 mile drives to the grocery store and most have already bought the trucks they’re going to keep for the next 5-10 years.

        Which is probably why I’m seeing so many Kias and Toyotas, when you’ve been driving an hour looking for something that’ll ease the pain at the pump you’re probably not gonna bother checking if the Ford dealership in the next town over has any Fiestas on the lot.

  • avatar
    Scoutdude

    In 1990 the Ford Ranger had a no cost option composite 6′ bed. IIRC it reduced the capacity to 500lb and it was only available on a base 2wd reg cab. I know the utility company around here used a few of them. The later Ranger EV also used an all composite bed but of course it was very limited production.

  • avatar
    airmon

    I get this at the bottom of a few of the photos:

    “Click here to find great offers on all 2011 GMC vehicles”

    GM Advertising FAIL.

  • avatar
    Robert.Walter

    BTW, does the vehicle pictured happen to have a black bed-liner too? What’s up with that?

  • avatar
    George B

    I once saw a short bed regular cab V8 manual transmission Dodge Dakota at a Dodge dealership in Dallas. The formerly mythical maximum power to weight ratio combination dealers never order! Asked if I could test drive it. No, can’t do that. It was a special order already sold to a customer. Begged to be put in touch with the customer. No, can’t do that either. The job of a car salesman is to sell you what the dealer has, not help you buy what you want.

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      I remember that “mythical truck” that only existed in car mags and on the order sheet. The only time I ever “heard” of one was when Car and Driver was testing it and going on about how it had a better power to weight ratio than a Mustang GT did (at that time.) Glad to know at least one or two people actually got to order one.

    • 0 avatar
      NulloModo

      It probably depends on the dealer but many are willing to special order a vehicle for you as long as you are willing to put down a deposit and agree to terms at time of order. While I’d rather have a sale today and not have to wait 6-12 weeks for the ordered vehicle to arrive, I’m happy to do it if what the customer wants isn’t on hand and can’t be brought in quickly from another dealer. A guaranteed deal in the future is better than no deal at all.

      As far as them not allowing a test drive and refusing to give you contact info, it makes sense. The dealer isn’t going to risk damage to the vehicle during a test drive (not that it would be damaged by bring driven, but what if you were rear-ended by a careless driver while out?) or put excess miles on a vehicle that has already been effectively purchased by someone else. When I have an ordered vehicle come in it goes straight to a special holding area back behind the dealership, gets locked up, and I hold both keys until the scheduled day of delivery. No one else even sits in the driver’s seat. There are also a host of privacy laws in place that would prevent the dealer from giving the intended customer’s contact info to you.

      • 0 avatar
        econobiker

        I thought Chysler/Dodge put the owners name on the vehicle MSRP window tag when special ordered. I remember seeing a dually Ram with this at some rural dealer within the last 10 years.

    • 0 avatar
      econobiker

      Remember- the manual transmission is fast fading from use in the US.

      I had to order a long bed w/ manual transmission and V-6 (should have had a V-8! knowing what I know now) at the end of the 1st generation Dakota run in 1996. This was because the only 1995 left overs that the dealers had were stripper 4cyl short beds w/ manuals or customized V-8 automatic club cab w/ short beds plus the dealers were being stingy with ordering 1996s knowing that the 1997 was going to be a dramatic model change. Got it at the end of 1995 and still have it.

      That said, I had to twist the sales guy’s arm to get him to spec an engine block heater for the truck. I said “I want, I order,I pay, I get. And I don’t care whether or not it gets cold enough in NJ, I might be other colder places in the future…”

  • avatar
    GS650G

    Imagine the commercial where a shot putter lands a ball in the back of the truck on one of these. that double walled construction commercial was very effective, I can’t remember if it was Chevy or Ford but it would be more impressive than Mike Schmidt using a ball bat. The composite might not hold up so well and it wouldn’t get fixed so easy.

    Mike was a great player and one of my idols as a kid. I was thrilled to meet him in Florida at a restaurant a few years ago.

  • avatar
    JD-Shifty

    I don’t understand the “Line-X hick street cred” remark. That’s stuff is very good and expensive

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