On The Purpose and Nature Of GM’s Deadly Sins

Having never properly set forth my purpose and criteria for the GM Deadly Sins series, it seems like this might be a good time to do so. I understand that they challenge some readers, and it may seem we’re picking on GM unfairly. Humans by nature tend to affiliate themselves to various groups and tribes, which may be sports, religious, ethnic, cultural, political, and many others as well as our favorite automotive brand or company. Which explains the endless automotive pissing matches that have gone on since they were invented. Cars, especially more so in the past, are generally deeply enmeshed in our emotional brain centers. It may be impossible (and dull) to eliminate any personal bias in our writing about cars and their makers, but there is a much bigger picture issue that drives this series.

GM was once the world’s biggest and most profitable corporation, period. As such, its long decline and ultimate death (it really did die; the new GM is a wholly new legal entity) is of very considerable interest to anyone interested in cars and their history. In fact, to deny analyzing what went wrong with GM would be the ultimate act of  self-delusion.

I have had a long and intense relationship with GM. As a boy, it was clearly the company I was most affiliated with, and I’ve written plenty about that. But perhaps because of my bi-continental background, there was always a strong inner tension between my feelings for GM and other American cars versus European cars, even as a child. In the fifties and sixties, the two were generally very different. And although I wanted to be accepted with the home team, I struggled with certain doubts about American cars (and their engineering/design priorities) within a few years after arriving.

Although large American cars from the golden era were endlessly appealing on so many levels, we don’t have to go over the well-known history of all the difficult changes that were essentially forced on Detroit. Some of those were externalities largely beyond the industry’s growth (emission controls, energy crises, etc.), but there were many huge vulnerabilities that GM and the other American makers mostly allowed themselves to be prey to.

The inability to make a truly successful small car, to improve quality and reliability, to properly react to major changes in the market place, and to embrace the need for true cultural change in management; among others. We all know what happened over a span of some four decades, but the bottom line is this: the cars that are being made today by GM, Ford and Chrysler much more reflect the European approach to design, and the Japanese fastidiousness with quality and efficient production, than what was once known as the traditional American approach to car design and production. Sorry, but that’s the reality.

But; and a very big but indeed, that doesn’t mean that we’re here to gloat on the demise of GM, Chrysler, and the near-death of Ford. First of all, there were many interesting, appealing, unique and well-built cars during this period of crisis for the American car industry. Speaking for myself, I’ve learned to appreciate those cars much more thanks to the many comments and articles written by other writers over the past five years since I began this journey of exploration. Which is what it is: I’m not coming with a specific agenda. I’m willing to give credit wherever it’s due. And I welcome other writers to balance my own reality, which is not fixed.

In essence, my personal GM Death Watch began quite a long time ago, but I truly began to wonder about GM’s long term health about 1980-1982. Having had personal experience with GM’s X-cars, and driven a 1982 Cimarron 1.8, and taken a good hard look at the inside and outside of a 1980 Seville while living in Southern California, which, like it or not, really has been a driver of many national trends. GM’s cars then simply looked very uncompetitive and hopelessly out of touch (the B-body largely excepted). History has proven that to be correct.

If there’s any doubt, look at the 1983 Audi 100/5000, the 1985 Mercedes W124, or the 1997 Lexus RX300 to see how they’ve influenced all modern cars and CUVs, inside and out. Of course, in more recent years fresh new ideas and designs have also sprung forth in the US as well as Europe and Japan, but they all bear their marks, along with a few other key (foreign) cars.

Enough background: what exactly qualifies a car to be a GM DS? Any car that didn’t specifically counter GM’s downward spiral. Here’s the key issue: having a car be called a DS does not mean that it was necessarily a truly bad car! It’s not reflection on any given car to be wholly lacking in qualities that were attractive to some or many.

But GM’s decline was wholly the result of its cars; that’s what it was supposed to be in the business of making. And unless any given car was able to strongly counter (subjectively or objectively) GM’s decline, then it was part of the decline. That’s a bit harsh, perhaps, and clearly we’ve tended to chose those cars that were relatively more deadly than others.

Having said that, let me add that obviously there are personal, subjective, emotional and even humorous aspects to documenting GM’s decline. Which is where you come in, with your comments and your contributions with alternate points of view. We’re here to learn, but a chuckle or two along the way never hurts, especially on such a painful subject.

We also have a GM’s Greatest Hits Series, which has lots of room for augmentation. But not every GM car is going to fall in one or the other group. And there has been at least one Chrysler DS, and there may well be more. But there’s one more important fact to remember when/if we tend to single out GM: due to its overwhelming market share through the seventies, GM was not just the leader of the industry; it almost was the industry inasmuch as it had huge ability to influence it. It’s hypothetical, but if GM had adopted disc brakes or fuel injection earlier, and made a big to-do about it, do you think Ford and Chrysler wouldn’t have had to match them? And that could apply to almost any aspect of car building. GM failed to exercise true leadership.

As is often human nature, GM became lazy, defensive and hubristic after it achieved such mammoth success. Just read John DeLorean’s account in “On A Clear Day You Can See GM”, or a host of other books on the subject, although his is perhaps the most damming. That’s not to damn everyone at GM, as there were still many fine folks and accomplishments, but ultimately the results percolated down, as it always does in every organization. GM had a cancer in its executive offices, and it was a deadly one.

Here is a list of the GM Deadly Sins so far, which are numbered strictly according to when they were written, and not according to any ranking of deadliness. And yes, it will get longer yet. And yes, it has not been without controversy; sometimes I’m a bit unsure about a few myself. But even a superb and handsome car like the 1966 Olds Toronado embodied significant aspects of the kind of thinking that eventually brought GM down. Would I love one? Of course; but that’s not the point of this particular exercise.

All written by PN unless otherwise noted:

#1  1986 Buick Riviera

#2 1971 Chevrolet Vega

#3 1971 Pontiac Ventura

#4 1991 Saturn

#5 1983 Chevrolet Blazer S-10

#6 1989 Camaro RS

#7 1976 Chevrolet Malibu Classic

#8 1984 Pontiac Bonneville Brougham

#9 1990 Chevrolet Corvette

#10 Cadillac Cimarron

#11 1975-1979 Cadillac Seville

#12 1990 Pontiac LeMans (Deawoo)

#13 1980 Chevrolet Citation

#14 1978 Pontiac Grand Prix

#15 1973 Oldsmobile 88

#16 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado

#17 1980-1985 Cadillac Seville

#18 1991 Chevrolet Lumina Euro

#19 1984-1988 Pontiac Fiero

# 20 1991 Ninety Eight: A Sad End To The Oldest Oldsmobile –  GM’s Deadly Sin #20   Brendan Saur

#21 1986-1991 Cadillac Seville – And To Think I Owned One

#22 1982 Chevrolet Cavalier – The Decline and Fall of GM in 1.8 Liters

#23 2005 Buick Terraza – The Answer To A Question No One Ever Asked  Brendan Saur

1960-1963 Corvair: GM’s Deadliest Sin?