GM Screwed the Pooch

Let’s face it. General Motors is not necessarily good for the country these days. In fact, GM isn’t really very good for itself or its stockholders.

The other day, my son decided his family needed a second car to go along with the gas-guzzler he had seen as absolutely necessary a few years ago. He rejected advice to buy American, saying the GMC behemoth touted by Martha Stewart and other trendsetters of suburbia had improved his knowledge of basic economics considerably. He bought an Asian model with high gas mileage and slick looks.

It’s a horror story for the one-time king of the road that is sadly repeated over and over again to the detriment of millions of its shareholders, unionized employees and managers. But it could be seen miles away, even around a hairpin turn. Now another 25,000 workers are going to be laid off, and its market share, which used to be over 50 percent of all sales in this country, is headed south once again. How could this happen to Engine Charlie Wilson’s giant?

Everybody thinks he has the answer. It’s the unions, whose wages and benefits, including pensions and health care, are disastrously high. It’s stupid, shortsighted management that bought labor peace at the expense of its customers by just passing along the company’s increased costs every year. It is a failure to produce anything exciting or edgy except in the Cadillac line. It is years of Monday and Friday clunkers. It is an over-reliance on the sport utility vehicles, vans and trucks that have become almost prohibitive to drive in the era of soaring gasoline prices.

It is all these things and more, sure. But for most Americans, it is the design dullness, the lack of any excitement inside or out in the Chevrolet and Pontiac and Buick lines that most of them could afford to drive. No one seems to know exactly when these cars lost their cachet. Maybe it was when they named the former CEO of Procter & Gamble, John Smale, to turn things around. And his major contribution was to order a car of the future that, when completed, proved only that he didn’t know the difference between a cutting-edge auto and a tube of toothpaste. Ever seen the Pontiac Aztek?

My grandfather owned the first Buick in Franklin, Ind. It was one of those open-topped phaeton jobs that drew the kind of admiring glances all car companies now advertise as happening when one of their models passes. Several years later, his son, my uncle, went to work for Buick and was with them in a prominent role as an engineer for more than 40 years until he died. He was driving one of the niftier Roadmasters of the day when he suffered an attack, managed to get the car around the block and in the driveway before passing out.

Whenever I got a chance to be around him I was mesmerized by his intimate knowledge of the development of the automobile, from when he joined the company in the teens of the last century until the ’60s, including the innovations that made this country’s product the envy of the world. I never even considered driving anything but a Buick or an Oldsmobile until the last ones proved to be disasters in operation and design. But even then I refused to buy the latest offering from the Orient, switching my allegiance from GM to first Chrysler and then Ford, both of which were miles ahead in curb appeal and operation.

We are told that in the GM system design is by committee; thus the white elephants that have come off the assembly line in recent years. One need only travel to Auburn, Ind., to see the Auburns and Cords and Duesenbergs of the past to realize what can be done in design by one man. These were the expressions of Gordon Buerig. GM’s celebrated Harley Earl was not far behind.

It seems to me, even with my limited knowledge of auto economics, that some of that excitement would bring sales back, that the day when a brilliant Lee Iacocca could save a company with a slick offering like the Mustang can’t be gone. To lose GM would be the final nail in this country’s manufacturing coffin. I can’t blame my son for buying the car he did; I just wish he hadn’t had to. Perhaps I just can’t get over the summer afternoons fighting the Japanese Imperial Army in my back yard with my buddies all those years ago.

(Dan K. Thomasson is former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service.)