How GM Nickel And Dimed Americans (And Itself) To Death: Part 1 – Undersized Tires

(first posted 1/6/2012)    Growing up is an endless series of awakenings, as the veil of innocence tears bit by bit. In the fall of 1964, when the all-new ’65 Chevrolets came out, I went down to the dealer’s unveiling party, and partook of the cookies and GM Kool-Aid. Beautiful bulging hips and sweeping roof lines; Yes! And big wheel wells to go along with those new wider fenders; Yes! And the usual orgy of Chevy power, all the way up to 400 hp; Yes! Eleven years old, I was oblivious as to what was actually hiding inside those shaded wheel wells on the overhead-lit showroom floor.

Fast-forward just nine months, and I’ve been dropped off at the Mennonite farm for my annual tractor driving vacation. The Yoders have a new car, a 1965 Bel Air four door six sedan, just like this one. But now that I’m really looking at it in the bright Iowa summer sun, something suddenly seems out of kilter: the tires look oddly puny, lost deep in their big wheel wells. I walk up to one, bend down, and read the tire size: 7.35 x 14. That’s smaller than the tires on our new mid-sized ’65 Dodge Coronet! GM’s record $1.7 billion ($12 billion adjusted) profit in 1965 was riding on the back of dangerously undersized tires.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the ’65 Bel Air in the picture was riding on something a bit bigger than the standard 7.35 x 14 mini-donuts. Just to put that size into modern context, that equates to a P185/80R14 tire, on vehicles that weighed some 4,000 lbs empty, and readily topped 5,500 lbs with six adults and luggage. Modern radial tires that size might be rated at 1300 – 1400 lbs capacity each. A two-ply bias-ply el-cheapo UniRoyal in 1965? Not that anyone really knew what their tires’ or car’s total rated capacity was anyway.

OK, I realize that the pendulum has swung the other way, and today’s new cars run on ride on ridiculously huge tires and wheels. But that’s not the point. As the above specs point out, at least the wagons and convertibles were bestowed something a bit less skimpy.

I’m currently re-reading “On A Clear Day You Can See GM”, the book that John Z. DeLorean dictated to Patrick White. He repeatedly comes back to issues like undersized tires that saved GM maybe $3 per car, and other such nickel and dime exercises. Some of which, like the missing $3 front anti-sway bar or $15 rear camber-compensating spring on the Corvair, undoubtedly killed unsuspecting folks; one of GM’s genuinely deadly sins.

But how many folks were killed because their overloaded ’65 Bel Air heading off to vacation lost control because of those puny tires? Hello Firestone-Explorer debacle! But this was thirty years earlier, when (almost) no one thought twice about why that Bel Air was lying on its roof in the ditch.

GM took a momentous shift when Frederic Donner became Chairman in 1958. For the first time since GM’s management structure was laid down by Alfred Sloan, true executive control fell in the hands of a bean counter. Up to that point, GM’s President was the functional top executive officer, but by the time Ed Cole took that job, its powers had been clipped by Donner. And going forward, power increasingly vested in the Chairman and the newly-minted position of Vice-Chairman, both financial officers.

Of course it took some time for the effects of GM’s top management switching from operational executives to financial executives to be felt. In the short term, the benefits that were accrued from expanding GM’s operations in the late fifties by President Harlow Curtice was reaped by Donner and his hand-picked President, Jack Gordon. But the lack of true automobile builders and marketers at the top eventually caused the mortal drift that GM soon found itself in.

The undersized tires were not an issue exclusive to GM, although big Fords were riding on 15″ tires, but still too small in width. And Plymouth was only marginally more generous with the rubber. But GM was the industry leader, and the others had little choice. If Chevrolet had suddenly announced that fat 15″ tires were now standard, and extolled their enormous benefits in terms of ride, handling and safety, the rest of the industry would have had to follow.

That’s exactly what happened anyway, in just a few short years. The not so subtle pressures from the government as a result of Ralph Nader’s efforts and the growing awareness of the legal profession regarding product liability, in the form of raised expectations of safety and performance, all conspired to force long-overdue changes on GM’s products

By 1970, the fundamentally similar Bel Air was riding on substantially bigger rubber: F78x15 or G78x15, which correspond to 205/75R15 and 225/75R15 in today’s sizes. Now that’s more like it. Looks so much better too. Too bad it took another year for disc brakes to become standard across the board.

GM’s profits for 1970 were down some from 1965. The bigger tires?  Undoubtedly! (not really, of course) But GM bean counters soon found other ways to cut costs.