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.
Over the previous six years, General Motors' chairman had assembled the building blocks that he believed would allow GM to leapfrog the competition.
The acquisition of EDS Corp. would allow GM to standardize its patchwork data network with dealers, factories and suppliers. The purchase of Hughes Aircraft Co. gave the automaker access to space-age technology. And the Saturn project — still in its planning stages — would give GM the small car it needed to compete with Toyota and Honda.
There was just one problem: GM's earnings were stagnant. In 1986, Ford Motor Co. out-earned General Motors for the first time since 1924. Ford — which had nearly gone bankrupt a few years earlier — earned $3.3 billion, while GM earned only $2.9 billion. It was a time of turmoil at GM. In an effort to get costs under control, Smith in November announced plans to close six assembly plants and five body assembly or stamping plants. Altogether, 29,000 jobs were eliminated, or almost 6 percent of the company's U.S. hourly and salaried work force.