You must have an Automotive Newssubscription to view the digital edition
Click here to subscribe
Tim Morgan, a 51-year-old accountant in Houston, has an alter ego. He's a passionate fan of an unlikely object of love: the Chevrolet Vega. The Vega was General Motors' main small-car offering for much of the 1970s. Like many other GM small cars of the past half century, Vegas were star-crossed products.
In the mid-1960s, General Motors executives envisioned that their huge new assembly plant taking shape on farm fields in northeastern Ohio would make history. It did. But not in the way they had hoped.
When Dick Klimisch began working at General Motors in 1967, other GM engineers were trying to cut vehicle tailpipe pollution through mechanical engineering -- changing the way engines ran. They weren't having much success.
As the rare high-profile executive at General Motors, nationally famous after his face appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1959, Ed Cole showed unsurpassed flair. How many divisional managers had ever been able to boast of publicity like that? His motto, "Kick the hell out of the status quo," soon would be widely known.
Richard Gerstenberg's rise to CEO and chairman of General Motors in the early 1970s was a sign of the times for the company. The GM board put a high priority on naming someone who could focus on costs, prices and profits. Gerstenberg, a well-liked moneyman and a top-flight executive, was kind and considerate.
Elliott Marantette Estes, the future president of General Motors, spent his first year after high school churning butter for $3.20 a day at the Constantine (Mich.) Co-Operative Creamery. When a cousin who worked for Pontiac sent a news clipping about the General Motors Institute, Estes decided the automotive business was for him.
A sign on Thomas Murphy's desk proclaimed "Bless this mess." It was misleading; Murphy was really an orderly man.
The story has the ingredients for a good urban myth: conspiracy, greed, big-business hardball. The premise was that General Motors worked quietly with oil companies and tire makers to buy up and dismantle trolley lines and destroy public transportation in the United States.
With the gasoline crises of the 1970s still fresh in many minds, Buick designer Bill Porter labored over the proportions of a new Buick Riviera, scheduled for mid-1980s introduction in dramatically downsized form. He wasn't happy about how the design was taking shape.
For General Motors, the good old days may have officially ended on Monday, June 4, 1979. That was the day the May sales numbers came out. Imports had logged their best month ever, and GM's market share dropped nearly 3 percentage points from May 1978, to 44.6 percent. It was the beginning of a long slide.
Roger Smith was a pop-culture punching bag in the late 1980s, but he gets some vindication in the survival of the Saturn brand -- one of his pet projects as chairman and CEO of General Motors from 1981 until his retirement in 1990. Smith died in November 2007 at age 82.
In early 1982, General Motors President Jim McDonald had a chip on his shoulder when he walked into a meeting of top executives. McDonald was tired of finding oil stains on his driveway after driving home a new GM car. To McDonald, leaking fluids meant that GM's engineering specs were bad or its assembly was sloppy.
There they were, lined up on the cover of Fortune magazine's Aug. 22, 1983, issue: General Motors' new mid-sized cars. The group of four -- the Chevrolet Celebrity, Pontiac 6000, Buick Century and Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera -- made a striking statement. But it wasn't the message GM executives wanted their new A-body cars to send.
The Chevrolet Corvette, unveiled at the 1953 General Motors Motorama in New York, was a toothy-grilled, rocket-tailed concept meant to be America's answer to the growing number of European sports cars. Just six months later, GM was bolting together 300 production copies in Flint, Mich.
On Jan. 10, 1984, General Motors issued what, at first glance, appeared to be little more than a run-of-the-mill press release. In reality, it was the equivalent of a sledgehammer. And with it, CEO Roger Smith began dismantling the organizational structure of the world's largest automaker.
It seemed like a good idea at the time: Take General Motors' massive profits and invest in tangential industries to help GM develop world-beating cars more efficiently. It was 1978. GM had been hit hard by the gasoline crunch and stagflation, but it was on top of the U.S. car market. GM had just earned $3.5 billion on $63 billion in sales.
In the early 1980s, General Motors quietly negotiated an unprecedented deal: GM, the world's largest automaker, would build cars jointly with fast-rising challenger Toyota. Both parties had something to gain from the talks, which created New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., known as NUMMI. Toyota wanted to learn to build cars in the United States.
Hummer may be sold. Saab has lost its identity. Will both brands go the way of Lotus, the performance car maker General Motors sold in the 1990s?
If one was searching for the limits of technology in 1986, the year had its share of omens. In January, the Challenger space shuttle blew up soon after launch. In April, an explosion ripped through the Chernobyl nuclear plant, spewing radiation across the Ukraine. And Roger Smith's vision of a technological colossus began to unravel.
Ross Perot didn't claim to have all the answers when he took a seat on the GM board in 1984. At first he said he just wanted to make sure the data services company he had sold to the automaker was operating at peak efficiency Edward Lapham is the executive editor of Automotive News.
Consider the 2001 Pontiac Aztek. Or the 1982 Cadillac Cimarron. How about the 1991 Chevrolet Caprice? Don't forget the 1990 Chevrolet Lumina APV, General Motors' early stab at a front-drive minivan. What do those vehicles have in common? They quickly earned widespread derision from automotive critics and buyers alike.
Nearly all of the bright young financial executives who wrested control of General Motors in 1992 had spent time in the company's elite training ground, the New York Treasurer's Office. But they got their operating experience -- and their nerve -- working abroad. It was an elite band of brothers that included Rick Wagoner.
In late April 2002, General Motors Chairman Jack Smith flew to Seoul to sign an agreement to buy key assets of bankrupt Daewoo Motor Corp. He expected the usual pomp and circumstance common to such ceremonies. Instead, he got chaos.
With the mammoth Saturn project, General Motors set out in the 1980s to find a new way to manufacture cars in America. But Saturn's lasting legacy was a new way to sell cars.
General Motors spared no expense when the opportunity arose to launch its first new U.S. vehicle brand in 50 years. The cost to bring Saturn to market in 1990: $3.5 billion. Originally, GM proposed $5 billion for the endeavor. But when the industry hit a sales bump in 1986, the corporation trimmed its initial investment to $3.5 billion.
In January 1958, a 6-foot-4-inch former college football center walked into Oldsmobile's Lansing, Mich., headquarters with engineering drawings under his arm. The young engineer looking for an opportunity was Bob Stempel, who would become one of the most influential engineers in General Motors history.
A sense of turmoil to come nagged at many of GM's senior managers in the winter of 1991-92. "You could kind of smell the anxiety," Jim Perkins, then general manager of GM's bread-and-butter Chevrolet division, recalled in a recent interview. "In a corporation like GM, you get a sense of things like that, the unrest.
The seizure of power by GM's outside directors in 1992 and their ouster of a generation of top leaders appeared to be validated during the next several years by the company's improved performance. The link between the board coup and the improved results was the new president and CEO, Jack Smith.
J. Ignacio Lopez may have helped save General Motors from bankruptcy in the early 1990s. But the former purchasing chief embarrassed his friend, GM CEO Jack Smith, and was the cause of bitter accusations and lawsuits in Germany and the United States. It was all about saving money -- first for GM and then for Volkswagen Group.
Many people built brilliant careers at General Motors, but many others used GM as a springboard to success elsewhere. Some of those who left, like J. Ignacio Lopez, found that life after GM was filled with problems. Others, like Walter Chrysler, went on to automotive glory.
A certified letter in 1996 told Al Chapman how General Motors saw him fitting into its Project 2000 dealership consolidation plan. "They said I should sell my Buick and GMC franchises or acquire the Pontiac brand," Chapman recalls. He did neither.
In 1999, General Motors said it planned to buy dealerships and form its own retail operation, GM Retail Holdings. The proposal didn't get far. Dealers successfully lobbied state lawmakers for greater protection against perceived factory competition.
Retired General Motors Chairman Jack Smith enjoys great personal respect and admiration within GM. "You hate to say somebody is your favorite, but Jack has probably been the favorite executive that I've dealt with at GM, as far as leadership style and ability to drive the organization," said Bill Lovejoy.
General Motors had no template to follow when it decided 13 years ago to create OnStar. In 1995, GM recognized that developing the world's first in-vehicle, hands-free voice and data communication system would be fraught with risks, challenges and skeptics.
In 1994, General Motors' board of directors debated whether the company would be a global player in the auto industry. It was an odd question. After all, GM was the world's largest automaker. But the board concluded that GM's status was in jeopardy.
Few vehicles have generated as much interest or publicity as the Chevrolet Volt, the extended-range electric car that General Motors promises to begin selling in late 2010. But the Volt is far from GM's first attempt at breaking the century-long grip of the internal combustion engine on the auto industry.
The 1998 UAW strike at General Motors' Flint stamping operations was a disaster for the company. The 56-day strike shut all of GM's North American assembly plants. It cost the automaker about 500,000 vehicles and $2.8 billion in net losses.
Hopes were high when General Motors spun off its giant parts operation to create an independent Delphi Corp. in 1999. But it didn't take long for the enthusiasm to fade, says Don Runkle, Delphi's former vice chairman.
The conventional wisdom is that General Motors bought its 20 percent share of Fiat Auto in 2000 to head off DaimlerChrysler, which was stalking Fiat. But that's only partially true, says GM executive Larry Burns, who managed GM's alliance relationships. GM also was motivated by a hitch in its global deal-making strategy elsewhere in the world.
More than a thousand antique and nearly antique Oldsmobiles snaked through downtown Lansing, Mich. The parade marking Oldsmobile's 100th anniversary drew thousands of enthusiasts on that hot, sunny August day in 1997.
John Rock didn't sugarcoat his opinions. Bystanders knew exactly what was on his mind. "He was a lot of fun, and he was very straightforward," said Gus Buenz, director of Oldsmobile communications from 1987 to 2003. "He would make a point with little stories and analogies. He was just brilliant at that."
In 2001, with seven years left to go in General Motors' first century, CEO Rick Wagoner knew that his product lineup badly needed upgrading if the company was going to have a second hundred years. GM had lost its product mojo long before. GM's car lineup had the appeal of hospital food.
In the summer of 1958, Marine Lt. Bob Lutz and Lt. Pete Defty were trying hard to come up with $100,000. The two pilots, both stationed in Japan, wanted to start importing and distributing an up-and-coming motorcycle brand, Honda, in the United States.
After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the American economy spiraled down and auto sales slowed to a crawl. The country needed leaders, and General Motors stepped up. "I was right in the middle of it," says John Middlebrook, then vice president for vehicle brand marketing and corporate advertising.
It would be too easy to sum up Wayne Cherry's 42-year career at General Motors with two words -- "Pontiac Aztek" -- and write him off.
In 2005 and 2006, General Motors needed cash. It was time to sell assets. GM was like a sports franchise selling off players to rivals. Some of those players had failed to live up to expectations, others still held potential. But any worries about selling them to rivals had to be set aside. What mattered was raising cash.
In April 2006, General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner went before the board of directors. He sought two things: permission to raise cash by selling 51 percent of GM's finance arm, GMAC Financial Services, for $14 billion; and a vote of confidence in his leadership.
When Rick Hendrick was growing up on his family's farm in Virginia, he and his father, Joe, built a drag racer from a 1931 Chevrolet. Hendrick was hooked. In 1976, when he sold everything he had to buy a struggling automobile dealership in Bennettsville, S.C., the 26-year-old Hendrick became the youngest Chevy dealer in the United States.
In the spring of 2005, Rick Wagoner faced another in a long line of crises. After a couple of years of relative success, the General Motors chairman saw his company's revenue drop dramatically on the way to a massive second-quarter loss. Wagoner hatched an idea.
One gets a distinct sense of deja vu. General Motors announces a huge loss but assures investors that its turnaround plan is on track. The company closes assembly plants, eliminates thousands of jobs and shakes up its product lineup. Is anything different this time? Yes, maybe, but investors can't be blamed for feeling skeptical.
Dynamic reconfiguration. Sounds like some New Age workout scheme. But Ralph Szygenda says it's the key to the factory of the future. Szygenda, General Motors' chief information officer, says advances in information technology will turn assembly plants into paragons of flexibility, "pretty much producing any vehicle in any plant."
Continuous Improvement or Great Leap Forward? Can unglamorous gasoline and diesel engines be improved bit by bit to prosper in an era of costly petroleum? Or will automakers manage a Great Leap Forward by developing affordable fuel cells? Actually, General Motors has adopted both strategies.
General Motors has produced a lot of world-class powerplants over the years. Here's our list of the 10 greatest engines in GM's history, listed alphabetically.
With the Chevrolet Volt, General Motors has placed a huge bet that its technology will work -- and that consumers will want to buy it. The Volt's mechanical layout is unlike that of other hybrids such as the Toyota Prius or Ford Escape.
Imagine you could peek into the General Motors showroom of the future. Twenty years from now you will see electric cars that drive themselves, park themselves and communicate with one another. But the most fundamental advances will be in safety, predicts one of GM's foremost futurists.
Although much of the future-car focus these days is on robot cars that don't crash, dream cars of the past generally have been all about styling -- with an exotic powertrain or two thrown in for good measure. These concept vehicles, or Dream Cars, were meant to showcase innovative technologies. Many remain industry icons.
Welcome to 2020. The way we buy cars has radically changed. GM dealerships have adapted. The stores are smaller, smarter and convenient. The service area is off-site and works on a dizzying array of powertrains and vehicle technologies.
After more than half a century as the world's biggest automaker, General Motors finds itself a humble No. 2 as it marks its 100th anniversary. Toyota Motor Corp.'s ascent to the top with ever-improving profits has been rapid and seemingly inevitable. But the race is far from over.
So much for the first 100 years. The stories and pictures in this hefty volume are a tapestry of General Motors' first century on the automotive scene. But what lies ahead as it begins its second century? In this final story, we'll consider some neo-Malthusian theories and GM's more optimistic expectations for the future.
Get 24/7 access to in-depth, authoritative coverage of the auto industry from a global team of reporters and editors covering the news that's vital to your business.
Sign up today to get the best of Automotive News delivered straight to your email inbox, free of charge. Choose your news – we'll deliver.
Entire contents © Crain Communications, Inc.
Use of editorial content without permission is strictly prohibited. All Rights Reserved.