GM and Auto Industry and Opinion

LIPPERT: GM woes strike close to home

July 20, 2009

As someone who grew up in Michigan during the 1960s and 1970s, watching General Motors Corp. self-destruct was like seeing a loved one make bad decisions then watching him suffer the consequences. My sentiments about this once-great company are not unlike those depicted by Doc Graham in the movie, “Field of Dreams,” when he describes his hometown. “After a while, you feel for it, as if it were your child.”

This is how I’ve always felt about General Motors.

I acknowledge that other vehicle manufacturers played a large role in Michigan’s economy, especially Ford and Chrysler. But in the places I lived, GM best represented why Michigan was known as the automobile state.

Even Michigan’s governor for most of the ’60s, George Romney, was a former auto executive, having played a key role in the development of Rambler with what was then a novel idea—a smaller, fuel-efficient automobile. And for much of my Michigan existence, Ransom E. Olds’ name survived by way of Oldsmobile cars with “Rocket V8s” and also with Diamond REO trucks, both manufactured in Lansing.

In the late ’70s, while an undergraduate student at Michigan State University, I stood on a bridge in Lansing and watched the empty Diamond REO factory burn, destroying nearly everything except the “World’s Toughest Truck” sign. My eyes were moist, not due to the smoke, but because I knew I was witnessing the end of an era.

And now, General Motors as I knew it is no more. Worse yet, the challenges faced by GM were the result of years of management’s poor decisions and missteps and were avoidable. Not for a moment do I blame the men and women of the United Auto Workers who simply wanted to do their jobs and do them well.

My experience as a Saturn owner illustrates my point.

After years of hearing how Saturn was a “different kind of car,” I gave it a look when I was in the market for my first SUV in 2004. I discovered a unique vehicle with all the features I wanted and an incredible use of interior space—the Saturn VUE, which didn’t look like any other car on the road. I ordered one in chili pepper red, and it has served me well for five years.

Until recently, my VUE was also serviced well exclusively by Saturn Dealers in Evansville and Indianapolis. Going to the Saturn dealer was like going to visit an old friend, which hadn’t been my experience going to other dealerships.

Then things began to change.

GM decided Saturn no longer needed to be independent, and brought it into the fold like Chevrolet and Buick. The new VUE looked suspiciously like a Chevrolet Equinox or a Pontiac Torrent, one more offering in the “me, too” cars from General Motors. The Saturn dealership no longer did the follow-up surveys to which I had become accustomed.

In 2004, the final Oldsmobile was produced, having gone the way of Oakland, LaSalle and, now, Pontiac, maker of some of GM’s most memorable automobiles. For the time being, David Dunbar Buick’s nameplate survives, but one wonders for how long.

In the ’70s, GM officers decided no one would notice if they installed Chevrolet engines in Oldsmobiles, and called them Rocket V8s. Their customers did notice, and GM suffered. The company also decided using existing gasoline engine technology and converting those engines to run on diesel was the way to go. It wasn’t, and GM suffered.

I watched all of this and felt it, as if it were my child. Now that child, instead of growing up, has followed a path of self-destruction.

There are those who say GM’s downfall is a complicated confluence of market, labor and business forces best left to economists and historians to analyze. I say that, despite the sincere efforts of legions of men and women who believed in what they were doing, GM officials did it to themselves. And to me.•

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Lippert is a former banker and community leader in Evansville now pursuing teaching opportunities in central Indiana. He can be reached at douglas.lippert@gmail.com.

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