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The peak GM never scaled

June 4, 2009 17:09 IST

The peak GM never scaled

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Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, Buick, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Saturn, AM General -- Hummer, Saab, Opel, Isuzu, Suzuki, Subaru, Fiat, Daewoo, Holden -- all GM owned brands or companies where GM had a stake in not too long ago.

At the turn of the millennium, GM had luxury cars, sports cars, pick-ups, SUVs, muscle cars, Euro-chic cars and the very best of small cars.

Let us re-visit the iconic brands under the GM umbrella and to see why none of them could change the fortune for the General.

Text: Bijoy Kumar Y

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Image: General Motors is in advanced talks for selling its premium Hummer brand to Chinese group Sichuan Tengzhong Heavy Industrial Machinery for an undisclosed sum.
Photographs: gmhummer.com
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There was a time some time ago, and we are talking of the 1930s, when Cadillac determined the 'world standard' when it comes to luxury cars -- there were luxo-barges with V8 engines and even a monster powered by a 16 cylinder engine.

Along with Packard and Duesenberg, Cadillac gave a tough time to the Mercedes-Benzes and Rolls-Royces of this world. Post-war, Cadillacs became the epitome of a successful America and cars like the Eldorado with tail-fins that could embarrass sharks and lit-up like X'mas trees were the norm.

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Image: The Cadillac became the epitome of successful America.
Photographs: cadillac.com
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Post-moon landing and Woodstock, the world plunged into a recession and Cadillacs lost momentum. The front-wheel driven luxury cars never really had a technical advantage over finer and sportier European machinery.

GM tried every thing from badge engineering Opels into Caddies but nothing worked.

Even a move towards a splendid line-up in the last decade with a sporty convertible, small and mid-size luxury cars and some of the blingiest SUVs the world has seen, couldn't help Cadillac keep with the Mercs, Beemers and Porsches that went from strength to strength.

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Image: GM bought the Opel brand in the 1930s.
Photographs: opel.com
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Chevrolet was and is the effervescent brand of GM and the famous bow-tie logo could be affixed to anything and everything from a 600 bhp Corvette ZR1 to a little Daewoo called Spark and they could get away with it.

GM did its best to reinvent the 1950s magic of sub-brands like the Malibu and Impala with the Chevy plate and came up with cars like the Cobalt that was intended to take on the 'rice-rockets' from Japan.

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Image: Chevrolet is famed for its bow-tie logo.
Photographs: chevrolet.com
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But where the bow-tie shined through and through was on the trucks or pick-up trucks as Americans know them.

Sure, Ford was selling more F-150s but the Silverados rode well on the 'American revolution' tag and sold in tremendous numbers.

And even today there is nothing like a Chevy Suburban that can be called quintessential American metal.

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Image: Chevy Surburban is a quintessential American brand.
Photographs: chevrolet.com
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Lately GM launched an all new Camaro muscle car to bring in youngsters to the showroom -- alas they couldn't predict the economic slowdown!

The move to integrate car models inherited from Daewoo under the bow-tie was not a bad move though -- Chevrolet has gained acceptance in developing markets like India (better than trying to sell overpriced and complex Opels indeed) with these little cars that can actually compete with Japanese brands and Hyundai when it comes to economy and reliability.

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Image: The Camaro was badly affected by the economic slowdown.
Photographs: chevrolet.com
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Those who travel to China will be surprised to see Buicks everywhere. The Opel Corsas are sold as Buick Sails -- thanks to the brand equity of Buick in the mainland.

But back home, Buick was bought by sensible (read old) people who wanted a big car to go from A to B. Buicks were comfortable and reliable cars alright but never could be touted as state-of-the-art enough to worry Europeans.

Unfortunately the luxury and semi-luxury car category had moved on from 'waft-ability' as the soul virtue to sell cars.

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Image: Buicks are very popular in China.
Photographs: buick.com
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Pontiac is the performance division of GM and has been for a very long time. Remember the Firebirds of seventies and eighties? Those were cars with big engines, short wheel bases and antiquated suspension hardware.

GM tried everything under the sun to revive the 'muscle car' roots of Pontiac and even travelled around the world to Australia and Holden to reinvent the famous GTO (Goat, as it was known) by bringing in the Corvette powered Monaro.

But big mistakes were already done -- when the whole world was buying SUVs GM tried to reinvent the SUV and launched the Aztec -- a machine that was so far away from reality when it comes to design that it still wins 'worst looking car' competitions world over. Pontiac awaits the axe at the hands of a restructured GM.

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Image: The Pontiac is GM's performance division.
Photographs: pontiac.com
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Oldsmobile lost the plot and was competing with its own brands. Olds was the first brand to be killed by GM in recent times (an indicator that worse times were in the offing...?).

Post Gulf-War euphoria and the popularity of the Humvee led to GM acquiring the AM General brand. The idea was to cash-in on the military specification H1 and build smaller clones using pick-up truck platform.

Sure the H2s and H3s were capable SUVs, but by the time they hit the road the world was not looking at gas-guzzlers with a pleasing eye. It too faces a rather bleak future.

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Image: The Oldsmobile was the first brand to be killed by GM in recent times. Seen here, the Oldsmobile F-88 concept car.
Photographs: Jeff Topping/Reuters
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Saab was bought by GM with much fan fare as a major European acquisition (and Ford bought the other Swede, Volvo) but GM never really got under the Saab gene -- and that resulted in Opels and lately Subaru based Saabs.

Needless to say the Scandinavian minimalism and turbo-charged performance of yore was missing and so were the sales numbers.

GM India should thank GM's links with Isuzu of Japan. The Isuzu Panther, nee Chevrolet Tavera, is the most successful GM has sold in India to date.

Isuzu no longer makes cars and are restricted to diesel powered trucks. Toyota sensed an opportunity in the quirkiness of Subarus (rally champs, 4X4 running gear, boxer engines) and bought it off GM in a hurry.

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Image: Saab was bought by GM as a major European acquisition.
Photographs: gm.ca
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The link with Suzuki to build small cars as Saturns (earlier as Geos) and Opels worked with relative success but GM never really understood the low margin, small car business -- period.

The flirtatious relationship with Italians saw GM develop platforms with Fiat and Opel and develop engines.

Suzuki who helped GM acquire Daewoo got their bit of technology from this relationship with Fiat Multijet diesel tech being transferred to them.

But the Roman holiday was not to last with the Italians getting paid close to $2 billion for GM as alimony in 2004.

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Image: GM saw some success with the Saturn.
Photographs: saturn.com
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The immediate future doesn't look all that bleak, thanks to the GM-DAT acquisition that can fuel demands of the European as well as some developing markets.

With the Opel brand (acquired as early as the 1930s!) now gone to Magna, GM might look to re-enter the European market with GM-DAT products.

The silver lining though is the amazingly progressive hybrid concept call the Chevrolet Volt.

GM is ahead of several of its contemporaries in this game as far as technology goes. Now, if only there's a company that could make this technology a reality on a mass produced scale.

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Image: Chevrolet Volt is an amazingly progressive hybrid concept.
Photographs: gm-volt.com
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