By Bruce Nelson
Years ago there were two types of cars in the world. Expensive cars for the well to do, and common cars for the majority. If you could afford one of the cars along the lines of the Packard, Peerless or Pierce Arrow, you got a chassis by that manufacturer and a gorgeous body by one of a handful of custom body makers. If your choice was an inexpensive car you got their chassis with a body that was simple and cheap to manufacture. Then in an unprecedented move, Alfred Sloan, president of General Motors hired a body maker from California by the name of Harley Earl to design a new car for Cadillac, the LaSalle. This was the first relatively inexpensive car to have real style. With the popularity of this project, Harley Earl was hired full time and headed up the first large manufacturers design department. Alfred Sloan figured that two of the major things to look at in the sales of cars were, 1, make the owner of a new car unhappy with the styling of his or her car after three years, and 2, make the owner of a General Motors car want to move up the line to a higher line make of their manufacture. In other words, if the fellow buys a new Chevrolet this year, he will want a new Pontiac in three years. This was accomplished by having five lines of cars in steps from Chevrolet to Cadillac with each having three year styling cycles. The other two of the big three copied this. Ford bought Lincoln, and then brought out Mercury to fill out the gap between them. Later, they tried adding in the Edsel with disastrous results. Dodge added Chrysler and later added Plymouth. Although they tried, Ford and Chrysler never were able to fill all the steps like General Motors.
Besides the styling and trim level differences between the lines of General Motorís products, they each had their own drive trains. One brand would come out with a feature one year, and within a few short years it was added to the other sibling lines. The automatic transmission was an example. It was first used in the Olds and Cadillac, but soon was available in all the lines. Although they often used somewhat different transmissions. The major difference between the lines was the motors they used. If you bought a Chevrolet, it had a Chevy motor, if you bought a Pontiac it had a Pontiac motor, and so on.
I sold cars for about a year in about 1978. I worked for a Pontiac/Buick/Mazda dealer. This was about the same time that General Motors started putting motors from other divisions into other cars. If you bought a Chevrolet, it may have a Buick motor in it. After a few lawsuits, they added a disclaimer that said that the car you buy might have a motor made by another division. At that point, the individual brands lost a lot of their sales points. It became very difficult to sell a customer a Pontiac wagon against the Chevrolet wagon the dealer down the street had when they only had slight styling differences. The Ford and Chrysler folks never had as much difference between the drive trains, and also had more of a jump between the divisions, so I donít think they had as much of an issue.
What I guess what Iím trying to get at, is that styling became the only real difference between the cars at General Motors with the exception of Cadillac who has always had their own motors. General Motors was also the most famous company for their design department with great designers like Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell. So what has gone wrong over the past few years? All the manufacturers have made some really bad designs and some that are destined to be classics. But who is running the design department at General Motors? Who designed these new Cadillacís? Does anyone really think these look good, at least anyone besides a rap star? Why does the new GTO look so muck like every other car you have to get within ten feet of it to tell what it is. And who the hell designed the new Cavalier? I saw one driving down the freeway the other day and thought that was the worst looking rear end on a car that Iíd seen in a long time. Then I saw the front, it was worse. It looks like a shrunk down truck grill. OK, the new trucks look good, but the design isnít really new and the SSR is cool. Even the new Corvette may be technologically advanced, but the styling leaves me flat. I figured that since styling is in the eye of the beholder, Iíd run a test of a bunch of people I know, who are not really car people. I showed them all good pictures of the 2004 GTO, the 2005 Corvette and the 2005 Mustang. I asked which car they would prefer if the price were the same and the performance was equal. They all preferred the Mustang. A few years ago everybody came out with up-scale minivan type vehicles. General Motors brought us the Pontiac Aztec, Chrysler brought out the PT Cruiser. Which one looked the best and sold the best.
Donít get me wrong. I prefer General Motorís vehicles. Most of my cars are from them. I would just like to know what happened to that great design department? Maybe they ought to hire that guy Buick has playing Harley Earl in their ads. Bruce.
By Bruce Nelson
Last Update: 03/23/04