In the 1950s, GM was the largest corporation in the Unites States. A job there was pretty much cradle to grave security, especially after the rise of the United Auto Workers Union under such dynamic leaders like Walter Reuther. Gradually, the cost of paying union members, including extremely generous benefits, began taking its toll. Moreover, ridiculous union work rules cut into the productivity of the American worker, adding to GM's burden. Finally, the bizarre Detroit manufacturing philosophy of "planned obsolescence", the process of a product becoming obsolete or non-functional after a certain period or amount of use in a way that is planned or designed by the manufacturer, was the last straw and the beginning of the end for GM. Looming on the horizon, ready to change the auto industry in ways GM never imagined, was an unknown company from the Land of the Rising Sun.
Around 1959, Nissan Motors began selling its small Datsun sedans. Consumers laughed. Management at GM and other major US automakers, in their supreme arrogance, scoffed at the Japanese cars. This was America, and everyone knew that bigger was better, at least that's what they bet the ranch on. They lost. The steady rise in gasoline prices made the economical Japanese imports more desirable than their gas-guzzling US counterparts for many Americans. While the big three Detroit automakers continued cranking out big cars loaded with bells and whistles, Nissan, and later Honda, Toyota and Volkswagen, slipped in under the radar and stole their market with compact, reliable little cars. The rest of the story you know.
In the fifties and sixties, each GM brand had its own strong identity. Every boy on my Brooklyn block could identify a GM car a block away, and many could recite the model and year as well. By the 80s, GM's various brands all started to look alike - it was hard to tell an Olds from a Buick or Pontiac - no more 'Rocket 88' swoopy styling - just another blandly engineered' GM product. Around the year 2000, GM abandoned its Oldsmobile brand. This past May the last Pontiac rolled off the assembly line, leaving general Motors just three of its iconic brands, Chevy, Buick and Cadillac. In 2008 GM received billions in bailout money from the government, with up to an additional $45 billion more in future tax credits. In 50 years the once largest corporation in the United States was on its knees, victimized by clueless management, greedy unions and skyrocketing gas prices.
As we drove by those classic Pontiac cars, what should have been a celebration of American automotive history became in my mind more like a funeral procession for a lost American industry. GM is finally making the kind of cars that Americans want, but we are now playing catch-up in a business we once ruled.
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