DETROIT -- In 14 months, a General Motors engineer went from telling colleagues that improving the Chevrolet Cobalt's ignition switch was "close to impossible" to signing off on the very fix he had shot down, documents show.
Why he made such a surprising about-face -- and how it could occur so inconspicuously that virtually no one else at GM knew about it until last fall -- is among the biggest questions that those investigating the automaker are working to answer.
It happened against a backdrop of extraordinary upheaval at GM and Delphi Automotive, the supplier that made the switch in Mexico. Analysts at the time were starting to wonder aloud whether bankruptcy could be in GM's future, and Delphi began a messy, four-year trip through its own bankruptcy in October 2005.
Both companies were bleeding billions of dollars and scrambling to contain the damage by cutting jobs and slashing costs wherever possible. But union contracts compelled GM to keep plants churning out unprofitable cars such as the Cobalt because it had to pay workers whether they were productive or not.
"That's impacting everything you do -- how much you spend, how much energy or resources you throw at solving a problem," said Karl Brauer, senior director of insights at Kelley Blue Book.
"You're producing these small cars basically to give workers something to do that you're going to have to pay either way," Brauer said. "If that's the atmosphere, then it's easy to see how any cost related to those vehicles becomes 'No, we're not doing that.'"
GM CEO Mary Barra told Congress last month that the automaker had too much of a "cost culture" at the time. But the constant announcements of layoffs and restructuring plans, beginning in 2005, also created an environment in which employees couldn't help but worry about their jobs and the company's future.