What I recall about the Rick Wagoner years boils down to a key.
Let me explain. As a reporter and editor for Automotive News covering General Motors, I found Wagoner to be an engaging, well-spoken leader. But that mattered little given the company’s lackluster vehicles.
As GM marched toward bankruptcy in the 1990s and 2000s, its vehicles looked and felt as if bean counters ruled. With some exceptions, lots were filled with plasticky interiors, plain sheet metal and uninspiring powertrains.
I wanted to grab GM executives and declare a simple truth: Invest in cool products and customers will come.
The key memory is from a media event for a redesigned Cadillac in the mid-1990s, as Wagoner was working his way up to CEO in 2000. After execs extolled the car’s features, I received a set of keys for the test drive.
I stared at the key. It was a cheap bit of stamped metal, a total mismatch with Cadillac’s flagship mission. And no different from keys on GM’s least expensive cars of the day.
Luxury brands then were creating beautiful keys. I particularly remember Infiniti’s big, round key handles that looked handcrafted.
Yes, just a key for a GM car. But it said so much.