The twin demises of GM, last year as the world’s biggest car company and a now as a viable financial entity, is encouraging plenty of people to attempt to discredit the US giant as a car-builder. We’ve already heard many ‘industry experts’ (as well as predictable platoons of news media know-nothings) criticising the giant company for not building cars the public wanted.
This is a gross oversimplification of the situation. One disastrous factor, above all, brought GM low. It was a series of decisions, made 50 years ago for the most benevolent reasons, to provide existing and retired employees with benefits the company has not been able to afford for at least a decade. As departed chairman Rick Wagoner memorably put it, GM is a company with 300,000 employees, which is responsible for the pensions and medical bills of 1.1 million people.
The truth about GM’s car-makers, both the pared-down American concern and the newly-devolved bits on this side of the Atlantic - is that they have already designed and are well advanced with producing many of the cars that will be needed for tomorrow’s market. The US company’s new financial freedom, afforded by this Chapter 11 bankruptcy, will allow the company to build cars on a similar cost basis to the US-based Japanese for the first time in decades.
Meanwhile, great GM cars from the pre-bankruptcy era must never be forgotten. Just because market conditions have changed is no reason to forget some of its glorious muscle cars, leader of which (for me) was the Pontiac GTO of the late ’60s. Follow that, if you like, with the original mid-’50s Chevy Corvette, a car so brilliant in concept (leave alone the fabulous styling) that survives today as part of ‘America’s Sports Car’ and will undoubtedly endure. Rivalling those, in my mind, is the new Chevy Volt (first production versions next year) that will excite with its great styling, versatility and the radical answer to tomorrow’s transportation problems.
This side of the Pond? Looking back in history, I always reckoned the Opel GT was a minor miracle. Among concepts, the one that sticks out is a much-displayed city car called Maxx, which inspired many imitators outside GM Europe. And if you press me on today’s product, I think they’ve scored a king-hit with the much-admired Insignia executive, for which hard-headed German execs have started trading BMWs and Mercs. GM is adopting the same enhanced-style-with-refinement philosophy for the Astra, which we’ll see soon, so that car should sell strongly, too. To my eye, at least, GM knows what cars it needs and is getting on with building them.