June was a good month for General Motors' public relations staff. In that 30-day period, Business Week, Barron's, and the Detroit Free Press wrote laudatory articles on the company's turnaround and its bright future. This has befuddled many in the auto writing community, myself included, especially as we watch a company like Nissan come out of a coma, post a $2.0 billion profit, and show us they have a clear vision of who they are, where they are going, and the products that will get them there.
Yet in the same period it took Renault to turn Nissan around, GM bought 20% in almost every car maker not allied to Ford or DaimlerChrysler, killed Oldsmobile, scolded Saturn for not prospering on a starvation diet, and introduced the first of an onslaught of new trucks into a market quickly filling with import competition and running low on cheap fuel.
None of this would be a problem–in fact it could have been a major positive–if it was part of a deep sense of urgency emanating from the silver towers overlooking the Detroit River. But it wasn't. Things continued to roll along even as warning flags flew.
Where was the urgency when Rupert Murdoch appeared ready to buy all of GM just to get his hands on Hughes Electronics' DirectTV satellite television company? No one at GM said much, on the record or off, about the fact that Hughes was worth many times more than the vehicle operations. Someone, somewhere should have done their best Winston Churchill and told the world, "This will not stand!" Instead, all we heard was deafening silence.
We watched as GM added layer upon layer of brand management bureaucracy, and stood by as sales continued to fall, ad campaigns became ever more banal, and the product morphed into the equal of the protein goo from Soylent Green. "The power of &…Buick: It's all good Chevy: We'll be there" What does this mean? And what sense did it make to declare every nameplate was a brand of its own? None, if you ask me. Yet this nonsense continues, even in the face of its abject failure. Heck, Saturn's "Different kind of company/Different kind of car" is so old it's actually on the mark again for the Vue SUV.
And then there's the racing effort! Yes, Corvette won Le Mans, but the Vipers aren't factory efforts anymore. And Aston Martin, Porsche and others are poised to join the fray in the GTS class. Porsche does not come unprepared. In the LMP class, Cadillac's foray started with a toe in the water, only for the shark from Audi to take a bite out of the foot and the leg. If hype won races, Cadillac would have been a shoo-in last year. And engine whiz Bernard Dudot has returned to Renault to revitalize Nissan's IRL engine program, just in time to challenge Chevy as it takes over from Oldsmobile. Nissan understands the urgent need to win, even in a series about which no one really cares. Does Chevy?
In the interest of fairness, I'll be honest: I haven't had a look inside the General's product vault (and after this, I doubt I ever will), so there could be some surprises on the horizon. Products that redefine segments, combine high value with high style, show that American automakers can beat the imports when it comes to quality, ooze personality, and make customers do a double take when they spot the Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, Pontiac, Saab, or Saturn badge. However, each division needs more than one winner, a prospect that I think is about as likely as a second gunman in Dallas.
News about conspiracies and a raft of hot products are the hardest secrets to keep, and no one at GM is blabbing.
"The power of &...Buick: It's all good Chevy: We'll be there" What does this mean? And what sense did it make to declare every nameplate was a brand of its own?