GM rediscovers the value of planned obsolescence

Rick Kranz is product editor for Automotive News

CHICAGO -- General Motors' current managers view styling changes and product enhancements as a better bet to maintain sales than marketing dated vehicles with huge rebates.

This sounds like a step back to the days of "planned obsolescence," doesn't it?

In GM's heyday, the 1930s to the 1970s, capped by remarkable achievement in the 1950s, a good portion of the automaker's success was attributable to planned obsolescence.

Car styling was changed annually to lure buyers back to the showroom to purchase the newest Chevrolet, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick or Cadillac. It worked.

GM's post-bankruptcy managers have a slightly different spin on planned obsolescence.

Dave Lyon, executive director of GM global design, said nearly all of GM's vehicles will receive styling enhancements approximately every three years.

The enhancements will include restyled hoods and fenders, along with grilles, taillights, front and rear fascias, plus interior trim.

"I think Rick [Wagoner] never thought there was a lot of value in midcycle enhancements, and so we never did them," Lyon said. Wagoner is the former CEO of GM.

"We are kind of making a strategic decision that instead of offering huge incentives to give away something that is kind of dated, take some of that money, put it back into the vehicle and get the appeal higher, and you don't have to offer huge discounts," Lyon said.

Lyon was interviewed last week at the Chicago Auto Show.

Additionally, Lyon said GM will add new technology and safety features at a faster pace than it did under pre-bankruptcy management. He did not elaborate.

When the automaker had eight brands before bankruptcy, "there was only so much money to spread around. We really never properly funded anything. It is really a different world now," Lyon said.

As for more frequent styling changes, Lyon laughed: "We invented that and we forgot it."