For generations, General Motors fueled America’s love affair with the automobile, building cars that defined their owners’ status in life and the industrial might of the nation. But less than a year after entering its second century, the company that survived wars, international rivalry and even the Great Depression is being driven by the government into bankruptcy court.
The GM that helped move the world from horses to Chevys and Cadillacs is expected to file for bankruptcy protection Monday. The new GM that emerges sometime in the future will be leaner — unsaddled from much of its debt and labor cost disadvantages that contributed to tens of billions of dollars of losses.
It will also be almost three-quarters owned by U.S. taxpayers.
It will be a fraction of what was once the mightiest corporation in the world.
“We throw around the word iconic way too much these days, but General Motors really does deserve that name,” said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor who studies American popular culture. “General Motors has become a metaphor, in many ways, for the industrial era of the United States.”
The company that Billy Durant started on Sept. 16, 1908, with the Buick nameplate quickly absorbed other carmakers — Oldsmobile, Cadillac, GMC, Chevrolet and what is now Pontiac — within three years. Saturn, Hummer, Saab and other brands were added over the years.
‘Chevy to the levee’
GM introduced the fully automatic transmission, dropped the first V-8 engine into Chevy and put tailfins on the Cadillac.
The ultimate muscle car, the Corvette, was introduced in 1953. Its engineers even developed the first mechanical heart-lung machine.
GM inspired crooners to sing, “In My Merry Oldsmobile” and “GTO.” When Burt Reynolds outfoxed Jackie Gleason’s bumbling southern Sheriff Buford T. Justice in the 1977 movie “Smokey and the Bandit,” he did it in a black Pontiac Trans Am with a gold firebird on the hood. And Don McClean drove a Chevy to the levee in “American Pie.”
The company sold dreams to drivers of all ages. The first Cadillac, for many, was a watermark of success, and the brand became the metaphor for top-quality goods.
“Your lifestyle, and how well you were achieving, could often be measured by what kind of GM car you were driving at a given time,” Thompson said. “Cadillac meant luxury, it meant you’d achieved the American dream.”
For computer engineer Tim Barnes, the American dream is still the Corvette, the car that he fell in love with as a 15-year-old grocery clerk. The first Corvette rolled off the Chevrolet assembly line on June 30, 1953, in Flint, Mich. The car, now made in Bowling Green, Ky., has starred in movies, inspired singers and endured for 50 years.
“It was the shape, it was the aura, it was the performance,” said Barnes, 55, of Thornton, Colo. “It was the epitome of what a sports car should be.”
His first was a 1967 convertible — “I still know the VIN (number), and if I ever come across it, I’ll buy it again.”
He met and married his first wife while working on Corvettes with a friend. His first son was brought home from the hospital in a Corvette, and he expects a Corvette will be parked in his garage when he dies.
In 1979, GM employed 618,000 Americans, more than any other company. It became so ingrained in American culture that its late 1980s advertising boasted that Chevrolet was “The Heartbeat of America.”
By then, though, Americans also had become suspect of its quality. GM cars broke down. They rusted. There were stories of workers building cars with Coke bottles in the doors. At the same time, Honda and Toyota put out cars that seemed to hum along forever, almost maintenance free.
GM and the rest of Detroit started neglecting their cars, instead focusing on pickup trucks and sport utility vehicles with profit margins high enough to cover the ever-growing cost of former workers’ pensions and health care.
During the late 1990s, when the economy was booming, GM sold more trucks and SUVs than ever before, and its profit hit a record $6.7 billion in 1997.
By the turn of the millennium, GM had grown too large, with too many employees, factories, brands and models. Like crosstown rival Chrysler, which is already reorganizing under bankruptcy protection, GM had a loyal truck following, but the image of its cars had been tarnished.
When gas prices crept up to $4 per gallon, GM scrambled to roll out more fuel-efficient cars, but it didn’t shift quickly enough. Add the wide-reaching recession, and U.S. auto sales fell by nearly half. GM and Chrysler collapsed under the tremendous weight of their fixed costs.
GM’s U.S. employment amounted to just 88,000 earlier this year, and that number is likely to shrink even more as the company continues to reshape itself.