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History of General Motors

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The Renaissance Center in Detroit, Michigan, is the world headquarters of General Motors.

The history of General Motors (GM), one of the world’s largest car and truck manufacturers, reaches back more than a century and involves a vast scope of industrial activity around the world, mostly focused on motorized transportation and the engineering and manufacturing that make it possible. Founded in 1908 as a Holding Company for McLaughlin and Buick Stocks and allied in 1919, in Flint, Michigan, as of 2012 it employs approximately 202,000 people around the world. With global headquarters at the Renaissance Center in Detroit, Michigan, United States, GM manufactures its cars and trucks in 35 countries.

In 2008, 8.35 million GM cars and trucks were sold globally under various brands. The GM automotive brands today are Vauxhall, Daewoo, Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet (including the Corvette—nominally a Chevrolet Division product), GMC, Holden, Opel, and Wuling. Former GM automotive brands include McLaughlin, Oakland, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Hummer, Saab, and Saturn.

In addition to these brands selling assembled vehicles, GM also has had various automotive-component and non-automotive brands, many of which it divested in the 1980s through 2000s. These have included Euclid and Terex (earthmoving/construction/mining equipment & vehicles); Electro-Motive Diesel (locomotive, marine, and industrial diesel engines); Detroit Diesel (automotive and industrial diesel engines); Allison (transmissions, gas turbine engines); Frigidaire (refrigeration and air conditioning); New Departure (bearings); Delco Electronics and ACDelco (electrical and electronic components); GMAC (finance); General Aviation and North American Aviation (airplanes); GM Defense (military vehicles) and Electronic Data Systems (information technology). In short, there are few, if any, industrial sectors or categories in which GM did not play a major role in the Twentieth century, worldwide.

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GM’s headquarters from 1923 until 1996, a National Historic Landmark, is now Cadillac Place state office building.

General Motors was founded by William C. Durant on September 16, 1908 as a holding company after a 15 year contract with the McLaughlin’s of Canada. Initially, GM held only the Buick Motor Company, but it rapidly acquired more than twenty companies including Oldsmobile, Cadillac, and Oakland, now known as Pontiac. Durant signed a 15-year contract in Canada with the exchange of 500,000 shares of Buick stock for 500,000 shares of McLaughlin Stock. Dr. Campbell, Durant’s son-in-law, put 1,000,000 shares on the stock market in Chicago Buick (then controlled by Durant).

Durant’s company, the Durant-Dort Carriage Company, had been in business in Flint since 1886, and by 1900, was producing over 100,000 carriages a year in factories located in Michigan and Canada. Prior to his acquisition of Buick, Durant had several Ford dealerships. With springs, axles and other key components being provided to the early automotive industry by Durant-Dort, it can be reasoned that GM actually began with the founding of Durant-Dort.

Durant acquired Oldsmobile later in 1908. The next year, he brought in Cadillac, Cartercar, Elmore, Ewing, and Oakland (later known as Pontiac). In 1909, General Motors also acquired the Reliance Motor Truck Company of Owosso, Michigan, and the Rapid Motor Vehicle Company of Pontiac, Michigan, the predecessors of GMC Truck. A Rapid became the first truck to conquer Pikes Peak in 1909. In 1910, Welch and Rainier were added to the ever-growing list of companies controlled by GM. Durant lost control of GM in 1910 to a bankers trust as the deal to buy Ford for $8,000,000.00 fell through, due to the large amount of debt (around $1 million) taken on in its acquisitions R S McLaughlin Director and friend left at the same time.

Durant left the firm and co-founded the Chevrolet Motor Company in 1911 with Louis Chevrolet. R S McLaughlin in 1915 built Chevrolet in Canada and after a stock buy back campaign with the McLaughlin and DuPont corporations, and other Chevrolet stock holders, he returned to head GM in 1916,as Chevrolet owned 54.5% with the backing of Pierre S. du Pont. On October 13 of the same year, GM Company incorporated as General Motors Corporation after McLaughlin merged his companies and sold his Chevrolet stock to allow the incorporation, which in turn followed the incorporation of General Motors of Canada(reverting to General Motors Company upon emergence from bankruptcy in 2009 that left General Motors of Canada Limited as a privately owned Canadian Company). Chevrolet entered the General Motors fold in 1918 as it became part of the Corporation with R S McLaughlin as Director and Vice-President of the Corporation ; its first GM car was 1918’s Chevrolet 490. Du Pont removed Durant from management in 1920, and various Du Pont interests held large or controlling share holdings until about 1950.

In 1918 GM acquired the Chevrolet stock from McLaughlin Motor Car Company of Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, manufacturer of the McLaughlin automobile since 1907 (later to be renamed McLaughlin-Buick) as well as Canadian versions of Chevrolet cars since 1915. The company was renamed General Motors of Canada Ltd., with R.S. “Colonel Sam” McLaughlin as its first president and his brother George as vice-president allied with the Corporation 1919. Superior Court of Ontario Canada documents show the Corporation as indirect parent of General Motors of Canada Limited. General Motors of Canada is a 100% owned Canadian Company.

GM’s headquarters were located in Flint until the mid-1920s when it was moved to Detroit. Its building, originally to be called the Durant Building, was designed and began construction in 1919 when Durant was president, was completed in 1923. Alfred P. Sloan became president that year, and the building was officially dedicated as the General Motors Building in 1929. GM maintained this headquarters location, now called Cadillac Place, until it purchased the Renaissance Center in 1996. The Buick Division headquarters remained in Flint until 1998 when it was relocated to the Renaissance Center.

In 1925, GM bought Vauxhall of England, and then in 1929 went on to acquire an 80% stake in German automobile manufacturer Opel. Two years later this was increased to 100%. In 1931, GM acquired Holden of Australia.

In 1926, GM created the Pontiac as a “companion” to the Oakland brand, an arrangement that lasted five years. The companion outsold its parent during that period, by so much that the Oakland brand was terminated and the division was renamed Pontiac.

General Motors acquired control of the ‘Hertz Drive-Ur-Self System’ (now better known as The Hertz Corporation), the Yellow Cab Manufacturing Company together with its subsidiaries, Yellow Coach Manufacturing Company in 1926 from John D. Hertz who joined the main board (John Hertz purchased the car rental business back from GM in 1953 and took it public the following year). GM also acquired the Yellow Coach bus company, and helped create Greyhound bus lines.

During this period (and into the 30s), Sloan and his team established the practice of targeting each of GM’s automotive divisions to a specific demographically and socio-economically identifiable market segment. Despite some shared components, each marque distinguished itself from its stable mates with unique styling and technology. The shared components and common corporate management created substantial economies of scale, while the distinctions between the divisions created (in the words of GM President Sloan) a “ladder of success”, with an entry-level buyer starting out at the bottom with the “basic transportation” Chevrolet, then rising through Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, and ultimately to Cadillac.

While Ford continued to refine the manufacturing process to reduce cost, Sloan was inventing new ways of managing a complex worldwide organization, while paying special attention to consumer demands. Car buyers no longer wanted the cheapest and most basic model; they wanted style, power, and prestige, which GM offered them. Sloan did not neglect cost, by any means; when it was proposed Chevrolet should introduce safety glass, he opposed it because it threatened profits. Thanks to consumer financing via GMAC (founded 1919), easy monthly payments allowed far more people to buy GM cars than Ford, as Henry Ford was opposed to credit on moral principles. (Nevertheless, Ford did offer similar credit arrangements with the introduction of the Model A in the late 1920s but Ford Credit did not exist until 1959.)

GM surpassed Ford Motor Company in sales in the late 1920s.

The 1930s

In 1930, GM also began its foray into aircraft design and manufacturing by buying Fokker Aircraft Corp of America (U.S. subsidiary of Fokker) and Berliner-Joyce Aircraft, merging them into General Aviation Manufacturing Corporation. Through a stock exchange GM took controlling interest in North American Aviation and merged it with its General Aviation division in 1933, but retaining the name North American Aviation. In 1948, GM divested NAA as a public company, never to have a major interest in the aircraft manufacturing industry again.

General Motors bought the internal combustion engined railcar builder Electro-Motive Corporation and its engine supplier Winton Engine in 1930, renaming both as the General Motors Electro-Motive Division. Over the next twenty years, diesel-powered locomotives — the majority built by GM — largely replaced other forms of traction on American railroads. (During World War II, these engines were also important in American submarines and destroyer escorts.) Electro-Motive was sold in early 2005.

In 1932, GM formed a new subsidiary — United Cities Motor Transport (UCMT) — to finance the conversion of streetcar systems to buses in small cities. From 1936 the company was involved in an unpublicized project, with others, in what became known as the General Motors streetcar conspiracy to buy out streetcar and intercity train transport operators using subsidiary companies, and convert their operations to use buses.

In 1935, the United Auto Workers labor union was formed, and in 1936 the UAW organized the Flint Sit-Down Strike, which initially idled two key plants in Flint, but later spread to half-a-dozen other plants including Janesville, Wisconsin and Fort Wayne, Indiana. In Flint, police attempted to enter the plant to arrest strikers, leading to violence; in other cities the plants were shuttered peacefully. The strike was resolved February 11, 1937, when GM recognized the UAW as the exclusive bargaining representative for its workers.

World War II

General Motors produced vast quantities of armaments, vehicles, and aircraft for the Allied war effort during World War II. Its multinational interests were split up by the combating powers during the war such that the American, Canadian and British parts of the corporation served the Allied war effort and Adam Opel AG served the Axis war effort. By the spring of 1939, the German Government had assumed day-to-day control of American owned factories in Germany, but decided against nationalizing them completely (seizing the assets and capital). Soon after the war broke out, the nationalization came.

General Motors ranked first among United States corporations in the value of wartime production contracts. GM’s William S. Knudsen served as head of U.S. wartime production for President Franklin Roosevelt. The General Motors UK division, Vauxhall Motors, manufactured the Churchill tank series for the Allies. The Vauxhall Churchill tanks were instrumental in the UK campaigns in North Africa. Bedford Vehicles and GM of Canada, CMP manufactured logistics vehicles for the UK military, all important in the UK’s land campaigns. In addition, GM was the top manufacturer of U.S. Army 1½ ton 4×4 vehicles.

By mainstream accounts, General Motors’ German subsidiary (Adam Opel AG) was outside the control of the American parent corporation during World War II. Some conspiracy theorists posit that this was a hoax, with the American GM as a secret war profiteer on both sides, but Alfred Sloan’s memoir, for example, presents a description of lost control that is much more Occam-compliant than the fringe alternatives. However, even without any such conspiracy, GM found criticism for its tax avoidance around the Opel topic. During the war, GM declared it had abandoned its German subsidiary, and took a complete tax write-off worth “approximately $22.7 million”, yet after the war, GM collected some $33 million in “war reparations” because the Allies had bombed its German facilities.

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General Motors Corporations Specimen Stock Certificate

Post-war growth
At one point GM had become the largest corporation registered in the United States, in terms of its revenues as a percent of GDP. In 1953, Charles Erwin Wilson, then GM president, was named by Eisenhower as Secretary of Defense. When he was asked during the hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee if as secretary of defense he could make a decision adverse to the interests of General Motors, Wilson answered affirmatively but added that he could not conceive of such a situation “because for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors and vice versa”. Later this statement was often misquoted, suggesting that Wilson had said simply, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the country.”

At the time, GM was one of the largest employers in the world – only Soviet state industries employed more people. In 1955, General Motors became the first American corporation to pay taxes of over $1 billion.

1958–1980

By 1958, the divisional distinctions within GM began to blur with the availability of high-performance engines in Chevrolets and Pontiacs. The introduction of higher trim models such as the Chevrolet Impala and Pontiac Bonneville priced in line with some Oldsmobile and Buick offerings was also confusing to consumers. By the time Pontiac, Oldsmobile and Buick introduced similarly styled and priced compact models in 1961, the old “step-up” structure between the divisions was nearly over.

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A classic General Motors muscle car, the 1969 Pontiac GTO

The decade of the 1960s saw the creation of compact and intermediate classes. The Chevrolet Corvair was a flat 6-cylinder (air cooled) answer to the Volkswagen Beetle, the Chevy II was created to match Ford’s conventional Falcon, after sales of the Corvair failed to match its Ford rival, and the Chevrolet Camaro/Pontiac Firebird was GM’s countermeasure to the Ford Mustang. Among intermediates, the Oldsmobile Cutlass nameplate became so popular during the 1970s that Oldsmobile applied the Cutlass name to most of its products in the 1980s. By the mid-1960s, most of GM’s vehicles were built on a few common platforms and in the 1970s GM began to further unify body panel stampings.

The 1971 Chevrolet Vega was GM’s launch into the new subcompact class to compete against the import’s increasing market share. Problems associated with its innovative aluminum engine led to the model’s discontinuation after seven model years in 1977. During the late 1970s, GM would initiate a wave of downsizing starting with the Chevrolet Caprice which was reborn into what was the size of the Chevrolet Chevelle, the Malibu would be the size of the Nova, and the Nova was replaced by the troubled front-wheel drive Chevrolet Citation. In 1976, Chevrolet came out with the rear-wheel drive sub compact Chevette.

While GM maintained its world leadership in revenue and market share throughout the 1960s to 1980s, it was product controversy that plagued the company in this period. It seemed that, in every decade, a major mass-production product line was launched with defects of one type or another showing up early in their life cycle. And, in each case, improvements were eventually made to mitigate the problems, but the resulting improved product ended up failing in the marketplace as its negative reputation overshadowed its ultimate excellence.

The first of these fiascos was the Chevrolet Corvair in the 1960s. Introduced in 1959 as a 1960 model, it was initially very popular. But before long its quirky handling earned it a reputation for being unsafe, inspiring consumer advocate Ralph Nader to lambaste it in his book, Unsafe at Any Speed, published in 1965. Ironically, by the same (1965) model year, suspension revisions and other improvements had already transformed the car into a perfectly acceptable vehicle, but its reputation had been sufficiently sullied in the public’s perception that its sales sagged for the next few years, and it was discontinued after the 1969 model year. During this period, it was also somewhat overwhelmed by the success of the Ford Mustang.

The 1970s was the decade of the Vega. Launched as a 1971 model, it also began life as a very popular car in the marketplace. But within a few years, quality problems, exacerbated by labor unrest at its main production source in Lordstown, Ohio, gave the car a bad name. By 1977 its decline resulted in termination of the model name, while its siblings along with a Monza version and a move of production to Ste-Thérèse, Quebec, resulted in a thoroughly desirable vehicle and extended its life to the 1980 model year.

Oldsmobile sales soared in the 1970s and 1980s (for an all-time high of 1,066,122 in 1985) based on popular designs, positive reviews from critics and the perceived quality and reliability of the Rocket V8 engine, with the Cutlass series becoming North America’s top selling car by 1976. By this time, Olds had displaced Pontiac and Plymouth as the #3 best selling brand in the U.S. behind Chevrolet and Ford. In the early 1980s, model-year production topped one million units on several occasions, something only Chevrolet and Ford had achieved. The soaring popularity of Oldsmobile vehicles resulted in a major issue in 1977, as demand exceeded production capacity for the Oldsmobile V8, and as a result Oldsmobile quietly began equipping some full size Delta 88 models and the very popular Cutlass/Cutlass Supreme with the Chevrolet 350 engine instead (each division of GM produced its own 350 V8 engine). Many customers were loyal Oldsmobile buyers who specifically wanted the Rocket V8, and did not discover that their vehicle had the Chevrolet engine until they performed maintenance and discovered that purchased parts did not fit. This led to a class-action lawsuit which became a public relations nightmare for GM. Following this debacle, disclaimers stating that “Oldsmobiles are equipped with engines produced by various GM divisions” were tacked onto advertisements and sales literature; all other GM divisions followed suit. In addition, GM quickly stopped associating engines with particular divisions, and to this day all GM engines are produced by “GM Powertrain” (GMPT) and are called GM “Corporate” engines instead of GM “Division” engines. Although it was the popularity of the Oldsmobile division vehicles that prompted this change, declining sales of V8 engines would have made this change inevitable as all but the Chevrolet (and, later, Cadillac’s Northstar) versions were eventually dropped.

In the 1980 model year, a full line of automobiles on the X-body platform, anchored by the Chevrolet Citation, was launched. Again, these cars were all quite popular in their respective segments for the first couple of years, but brake problems, and other defects, ended up giving them, known to the public as “X-Cars”, such a bad reputation that the 1985 model year was their last. The J-body cars, namely the Chevrolet Cavalier and Pontiac Sunbird, took their place, starting with the 1982 model year. Quality was better, but still not exemplary, although good enough to survive through three generations to the 2005 model year. They were produced in a much-improved Lordstown Assembly plant, as were their replacements, the Chevrolet Cobalt and Pontiac Pursuit/G5.


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