The debut of the downsized B-Body full size cars in 1977 was a complete success for General Motors, redefining the full size class and introducing a fundamentally sound basic design that would endure for two decades. The cars won immediate critical acclaim and high sales, proving the correctness of the General’s strategy of downsizing and the abilities of its design and manufacturing processes. In retrospect, this success seems like a foregone conclusion. At the time GM saw the need to reassure the buying public that it had the right stuff to change successfully, however, and its concern was justified given the many problems that afflicted it and the entire American automobile industry during the 1970s. This long advertisement from November 1976, occupying four full pages, is a reminder of that time.
The 1973 oil shock. Smog controls that robbed power and ruined drivability. Federal safety and bumper requirements. Rampant rust. A wave of problems assailed the American automobile industry during the 1970s. Malaise Era has become the commonly accepted term for the period from 1973 to 1983, and it created a crisis of confidence in Detroit and in the American public’s relationship to its auto industry. For GM, the Vega with its self-destructing engine and premature rust became the most glaring example of how not to develop a new type of car and how to lose the trust of the public.
A radical change to GM’s bread and butter product, its full size cars, had much higher stakes, and the General had to convince the public that it was on top of its game and about to introduce a fundamentally sound product. Hence the emphasis on the solidity of the new cars’ frames and bodies, complete with a long explanation of the then-revolutionary but now-familiar use of computer-aided design (CAD), before a discussion of the new automotive religion of aerodynamics and efficiency.
“At a time when the world is running out of natural resources” is a gloomy opening line that speaks volumes about the pessimism that existed during the decade that began with the first Earth Day. It seems somewhat quaint almost four decades later, when metals are in abundant supply and have become a recycled, renewable resource. Not quaint at all is the concern about rust that follows that opening line, written during a decade when the public had become increasingly concerned with rust problems, and the Vega had gained a reputation for rusting when new and in the showroom. New rustproofing techniques such as using galvanized steel were a big deal back then. Highly quaint is the emphasis on the “greenhouse,” which this ad treats as an industry insider term. The concept of “perceived openness” from large window areas has completely disappeared from car design since then.
The throwback features continue on the final page, which begins by touting the undiminished trunk space of the downsized full size cars and its utility for traveling salesmen, a strange concept in the age of e-commerce. Also anachronistic at multiple levels is the lengthy and detailed discussion of fuel economy numbers. Five different engine designs on one platform from one car company is unthinkable today, and the table understates GM’s engine variety by listing only standard engines, which left out the small block Chevy V-8. Equally unthinkable today is the lengthy discussion of fuel economy without a single reference to horsepower and performance. Automotive engineering and technology were far from being able to achieve both power and economy in 1977. Progress has been so radical since then that muscle car levels of acceleration combined with high fuel efficiency became routine by a quarter century later, and today are expected in the most humble family sedan.
This four page ad, which intentionally says and shows nothing about the styling or performance of the class of cars that it introduces, speaks volumes about public attitudes and what GM saw itself as doing. In a gloomy decade filled with national problems and automobile industry problems, GM knew that it was taking a calculated risk. GM was certain that its downsized and more efficient cars were right for the times, and it had some degree of proof of concept in the successful 1975 introduction of the compact Cadillac Seville, but it could not be certain that the public would accept the change. They believed that they had to prepare the public for what they were doing, at considerable expense — both the advertising agency and the advertising space for this large ad must have cost top dollar. Almost 40 years later, this ad largely rings true despite its many anachronisms, since the success of the downsized B-Bodies in the marketplace and their enduring appeal to many people (including here) has backed the claims that GM made in this unusually technically focused ad. It is a reminder that GM still had the ability to succeed in 1977, despite the failures that preceded and followed.