General Motors has overseen a huge number of brands since the early 1900s. Some were successful; some still are in North America at least. But a generous handful of household names have also fallen beneath GM’s enormous wheels; sacrificed at the altar of industry in order to give others a better chance of survival.
But how many of these former household names were mismanaged? How many lacked investment at the right times? How many were simply ignored by GM until it was too late? Let’s take a peek into GM’s post-WWII history to find out why so many big names collapsed on the same corporation’s watch.
Holden once had the Australasian market sewn up, easily up there with Ford as one of the biggest and most sought-after names in cars. You were either a Ford guy or a Holden guy. Holden made some great cars out of Chevrolet-donated parts, and in the 21st century became something resembling a General Motors skunkworks with products like the Monaro and the Ute.
GM didn’t keep up its commitment to Australian and Kiwi buyers and the products Holden started to inherit from Chevrolet became limper and blander. Hot versions of the Commodore aside, by the mid-2010s the Holden range really was a dreary thing; unfit for purpose and an affront to the cool and desirable cars of decades past. A lack of proper product-planning has formally ended Holden.
When you advertise something as your sportiest brand; your performance wing, and then fail to invest in it properly, there’s only one end result possible. Pontiac was billed as the sports car maker in the GM stable; the performance division built on the likes of the Firebird and GTO. It sat above Chevrolet in GM’s hierarchy and was once one of the most emotive names you could put on a car.
Sadly its owners didn’t splash the cash when it came to keeping Pontiac’s models current. The 2000s saw it turn out a chain of utterly depressing minivans and sedans that were lukewarm at best. Americans just stopped buying them and Pontiac was axed after the calamitous recession hit at the end of the noughties. Perhaps if it hadn’t been producing such tat for the previous 20 years it might have survived.
Oldsmobile was one of the oldest surviving car marques in the world before it was shut down. Founded in 1897, it grew steadily and successfully with the trials and tribulations of the 20th century. Arguably it was most successful between the 1960s and 1980s with a rich history and boundary-pushing technology always in the mix.
It sold a million cars in 1985 after creating the innovative Quad 4 inline-four engine in 1984; an engine that led to the wild Aerotech speed record project. It seemed like Oldsmobile could do no wrong, but then GM decided to position it directly against the rampant Japanese car scene which was making vast leaps with every new model. The great Oldsmobile was hopelessly under-prepared and woefully outgunned. The brand quickly lost its way, flailed for a while but ultimately collapsed.
GM bought the Hummer brand from AM General and quickly marketed the H1, whose development had mostly been completed already. It was a triumphant, if impractical, expression of American assumed superiority. You could easily picture Donald Trump in one.
Not enough people actually wanted a military-spec SUV, though, so the H1 (above) was diluted into the much more common H2 and eventually the half-hearted H3 but the moves were too little, too late. Yet again, GM had failed to move quickly enough to keep a brand alive, leaving it with the wrong vehicles at the wrong time. In the end the 2008 recession was an excuse that GM was grateful for; it ended Hummer at the first chance. A rebirth of sorts is now on the cards.
In the 1920s Bedford was called British Chevrolet. It first started making Chevrolet Bedford-badged vans in 1929, and typically of Chevrolet at that time its products used an extremely advanced and smooth OHV straight-six that proved good enough for two decades of service. The Chevrolet name was dropped in 1931, when Bedford became its own brand.
It was closely aligned to Vauxhall and even used a griffin on its logo. It got sweet F-A investment through the 1960s and 1970s, though, so as rival companies were moving the truck game on in leaps and bounds, Bedford was building antiques. For whatever reason, GM did not keep pace and they let Bedford die. Perhaps they lacked the management expertise or the know-how in the European truck market. Either way, Bedford is dead(ford).
GM set Saturn up as a direct competitor to the Japanese after realising it was too difficult to A) get its existing cars to be as affordable and reliable as the Japanese ones, and B) convince the public that they succeeded.
Run badly with too little focus from the start, Saturn was never profitable. It never really got going; its pace of development couldn’t match the quality and value improvements being made by imports and it technically struggled on until 2010, although production had been ended a year earlier. Saturn never had a chance.
We couldn’t make this list without also mentioning some of the other brands GM has let down. Saab was a maker of genuinely brilliant cars that unfortunately had to share their oily bits with some of the very worst cars GM ever made, like the early-2000s Vectra.
Saab’s complete unwillingness to tolerate the utter uselessness of the products they were given, and the resulting in-house re-engineering processes, resulted in gross overspends year after year. Eventually, GM had had enough and sold Saab to Spyker, who quickly realised what a mistake they’d made and had the company file for bankruptcy. We still very much blame GM for its downfall.
As for Opel and Vauxhall, GM never really seemed to understand how to make cars that Europeans really wanted to buy. Surely it wasn’t difficult: ask people what they like about Volkswagens and Toyotas and then create the same things. Such basics seemed beyond GM, though, and every new model that came out seemed to hammer home the idea that Opel and Vauxhall were happy with being bang-average at best, with a few very notable exceptions like the VX220.
Opel and Vauxhall were sold to PSA towards the end of the 2010s and the first PSA-based cars to come from them look like a vast improvement. Was it really ever that hard to make them work? GM is now out of Europe and not looking to come back. It has a lot of wounds to lick and a lot of lessons to learn before it can think of returning.