(first posted 9/4/2013) In 1957, I was a sickly 12-year-old English schoolboy when I went with my parents on a pilgrimage to General Motors headquarters in Detroit. My father, Maurice Platt, was Chief Engineer and a Director of GM’s British subsidiary, Vauxhall Motors. His position required him to visit Detroit annually, where he would spend three weeks discussing designs for cars that he felt would appeal to people who weren’t Americans.
I don’t recall exactly why my mother and I were invited along on this particular trip, but I suspect that a polyp in my throat had something to do with it. There had been speculation, only revealed to me later, that I might be dying of throat cancer. The polyp turned out to be benign, but by the time it was removed I had enjoyed an insider’s view of GM. At long dinners where business was often discussed, no one imagined that a 12-year-old sitting in the corner might be listening attentively.
Our trip across the Atlantic was made aboard the Queen Mary–traveling first class, of course, as anything else would have been unthinkable for a GM executive. We dined at the captain’s table, and when we docked at a pier in New York City, a bright young man met us and hustled us through customs to a black Cadillac limo.
The influential status of GM in those days is hard to imagine now. It was far more important to the United States than Microsoft in the 1990s or Apple in the 2010s. GM executives referred to it always as The Corporation, as if there were no others of any significance. As its market share edged above 50%, my father told me that GM was worried that one of its two serious remaining rivals, American Motors, might go out of business. If GM acquired too much of the domestic market, it could be broken up in an antitrust action by the FTC. So here was a definition of success: wanting your competitors to survive, so that you wouldn’t be penalized as a monopoly.
However, where styling was concerned, ’57 Chryslers were inducing a shock-horror response among my father’s American colleagues. When I innocently remarked that there were a lot of those radically different cars with big tail fins, our hosts fell into a grim silence. “It’s just because so many of them are taxis,” my mother suggested brightly. “The yellow color makes them more noticeable.”
GM had thought that it owned the tail fin. Harley Earl had invented it, hadn’t he? Something like that. He had definitely pioneered the panoramic windshield. But now the upstart Mopars had taken tail fins to a whole new level, and–adding insult to injury–they lessened the wraparound of their windshields, as if “panoramic” was already an obsolete concept. No one had imagined that such a thing was possible.
My father, as an engineer, was annoyed that styling made such a difference, and was unimpressed by Chrysler’s engineering. He mentioned, darkly, that alcoholism was a serious problem among Chrysler executives. I don’t know how true that was, but if they really drank much more than the GM crew, they would have been unconscious for much of the time.
A typical GM business dinner would begin with an hour or two of sitting around a table, talking business and drinking hard liquor, before anyone opened a menu. The drinking would then continue throughout and after the meal. My father often said that if you didn’t knock back your share of scotch on the rocks, no one at GM would take you seriously. It was a macho thing in senior management, and indeed, this was why he preferred to travel on the Queen Mary. The ship took five days to cross the Atlantic, advancing the clocks by one hour every day. Thus he could arrive well-rested and more-or-less in sync with Eastern Standard Time, giving him a fighting chance to keep up with the executive drink-a-thons.
We stayed in New York for a week, then traveled to Detroit on an overnight train that had comfortable sleeping accommodations. After checking in at the Park Shelton Hotel the next day, we were chauffeured to GM’s executive garage. There we found about forty new Cadillacs, identical except for their paint colors, parked in two rows that faced each other. They constituted a glittering panorama of chrome.
“Mummy,” I said, “why are the cars all the same?”
This time she didn’t manage to come up with a diplomatic answer. There was no easy way explain to a 12-year-old that a GM executive would be committing career suicide if he drove anything other than a Cadillac.
We enjoyed a guided tour of the new GM Technical Center, which had been ceremonially opened the previous year by then-president Dwight Eisenhower, and looked as if it had been transplanted from Tomorrowland.
Regardless of the abrupt (but presumably temporary) styling embarrassment that had been inflicted by Chrysler, GM still saw itself as being synonymous with the future of transportation.
The Firebird II concept-car had been one of the first big projects to be completed at the Tech Center, and my father was allowed to drive it around the proving ground. He told me that the gas turbine introduced an unexpected latency when you tried to accelerate. You had to wait a second or two while the rotor spooled up, and he thought that this might be a problem if you were on a two-lane highway, planning to overtake a truck. By the time your car decided to follow through in the face of oncoming traffic, you might wish that you hadn’t committed yourself.
Of course, the Firebird II was nothing more than an engineering wet-dream, but in those days GM was not significantly inhibited by financial concerns or federal regulations, and all of its executives were genuinely obsessed with cars. They were uniformly male, and when we were invited to their homes, the women retreated discreetly to allow the men to talk shop. Years later, when I asked my father how GM wives coped with their orphan status, he thought it was a funny question. “They just had to put up with it,” he said with a shrug, as if I wasn’t making much sense to him. Like–what else were they going to do?
At the end of our time in Detroit we took a plane back to England. The De Havilland Comet had not yet overcome the stigma of crashes caused by metal fatigue in its early versions, so we flew on a prop plane–a Lockheed Constellation, I think. Four fold-down bunks were installed where overhead luggage bins would be located in an aircraft cabin today. I remember that we climbed little ladders up to our bunks while the other passengers did their best to sleep in their seats.
We were part of The Corporation. They were not.
Charles Platt writes for Make magazine and is a former Senior Writer at Wired magazine. He is the author of “Make Electronics” (an introductory guide) and is gradually writing “The Encyclopedia of Electronic Components” (the first of three volumes are currently in print). He likes to explore the dirt roads of northern Arizona in a 4×4 Mitsubishi Montero Sport, and has been known to test the limits of his Mitsubishi Lancer Ralliart turbo on I-40 across the Mojave desert–but still harbors a nostalgic yearning for an Olds 442.