GM 100

Table of Contents

Marketing the Dream

Keith Crain

GM's story is the American story

For any company, 100 years is quite an accomplishment. For General Motors it is the accomplishment of the American dream.

Keith Crain is publisher and Editor-in-Chief

Peter Brown

A powerful force in a century of change

Try to imagine a 20th century without General Motors. Not easy, is it? GM created or added to overwhelming forces that formed the modern world.

Peter Brown is associate publisher and editorial director

Pivot Points:
25 game-changers for GM


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A supersalesman creates GM

Billy Durant: From critic to car czar

"Get a horse!" the crowd taunted. The year was 1902. Two teenage girls, frightened and caked with dust, were taking their first ride in an automobile. Author William Pelfrey recalls the moment in Billy, Alfred, and General Motors. The car was a long-forgotten French brand: Panhard. It was loud, and it sputtered as it chugged along a dirt...


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Durant's corporate jigsaw puzzle envisions a vehicle for every buyer

How to assemble an auto empire: Be a builder, a buyer and a juggler

Billy Durant was a builder and a buyer. He was an unparalleled entrepreneur, but he was not much of a businessman. He built Durant-Dort Carriage Co. into the world's largest producer of such conveyances. He was a millionaire before he was 40, and the fledgling automobile industry became his next world to conquer.


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Downsizing in the 1970s

As oil prices soared, car designers scurried to shave pounds, inches

With the gasoline crises of the 1970s still fresh in many minds, Buick designer Bill Porter labored over the proportions of a new Buick Riviera, scheduled for mid-1980s introduction in dramatically downsized form. He wasn't happy about how the design was taking shape. Looking over the work, General Motors design chief Irv Rybicki said, "There's...


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Cadillac introduces the self-starter

If it was a first, it might very well have come from Cadillac

If you had to pick a B.C.-A.D. technological moment for the auto industry, Cadillac's introduction of the self-starter in 1912 wouldn't be a bad choice.


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GM diversifies, reorganizes — and falters badly

Roger Smith's diversification strategy created Saturn -- and lots of problems

Roger Smith was a pop-culture punching bag in the late 1980s, but he gets some vindication in the survival of the Saturn brand -- one of his pet projects as chairman and CEO of General Motors from 1981 until his retirement in 1990. Smith died in November 2007 at age 82. He championed diversification -- the acquisitions of Electronic...


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Learning the Toyota method firsthand

NUMMI joint venture in California was a classroom for change

In the early 1980s, General Motors quietly negotiated an unprecedented deal: GM, the world's largest automaker, would build cars jointly with fast-rising challenger Toyota. Both parties had something to gain from the talks, which created New United Motor Manufacturing Inc., known as NUMMI. Toyota wanted to learn to build cars in the United States.


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Auto loans expand the market

Financing pioneer put more people in new cars

The creation of General Motors Acceptance Corp. in 1919 was nearly as revolutionary as the invention of the automobile itself. GMAC was the first finance company run by an automaker. Before GM established its captive, banks had lent consumers money for large purchases such as houses. But in his book My Years with General Motors, former GM...


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GM creates an r&d powerhouse

Where GM's bright ideas are born and nurtured

The General Motors research and development organization grew from humble beginnings in a Dayton, Ohio, barn into one of the world's foremost scientific centers. From Charles Kettering's small laboratory, established in 1909, to the Dayton Research Laboratories, formed in 1916, to GM's first Detroit-based labs, set up in 1925, to facilities...


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Durant pushed out in 1920

Durant loses GM a 2nd time; Sloan and DuPont usher in the modern era

At age 50, all Pierre DuPont really wanted to do was work in his garden. After the financial success of his family's E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. during World War I, he certainly could have. The business already had been turned over to his younger brothers. Yet because of a large stake that was almost nonchalantly acquired, he got stuck as...


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Sloan restructures an unwieldy giant

After the frenetic Durant era, Sloan brought order from chaos

In 1920, Alfred Sloan wrote a long report about the best way to organize General Motors. He showed the report, titled "Organization Study," to GM President Pierre DuPont and CEO Billy Durant. DuPont was very impressed. Durant never reacted to it. Fast forward to 1923: Durant is out, and Sloan's Organization Study is in. Sloan was GM's president...


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The boardroom revolt of 1992

Directors dump Stempel, Reuss, turn to Jack Smith

A sense of turmoil to come nagged at many of GM's senior managers in the winter of 1991-92. "You could kind of smell the anxiety," Jim Perkins, then general manager of GM's bread-and-butter Chevrolet division, recalled in a recent interview. "In a corporation like GM, you get a sense of things like that, the unrest. We knew that something big was...


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Lopez revolutionizes GM purchasing

Lopez moved from cost-cut hero to defector and alleged thief

J. Ignacio Lopez may have helped save General Motors from bankruptcy in the early 1990s. But the former purchasing chief embarrassed his friend, GM CEO Jack Smith, and was the cause of bitter accusations and lawsuits in Germany and the United States. It was all about saving money -- first for GM and then for Volkswagen Group.


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GM looks beyond the United States

GM began its overseas empire by buying established companies

The roots of General Motors' overseas subsidiaries reach back into the pre-automotive age to saddles, sewing machines, bicycles, marine engines and even mythical creatures and knights-errant. GM didn't become a global powerhouse overnight; it accumulated its far-flung empire piecemeal.


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Durant forms a retail network

Strong dealer organization, based on Buick model, kept metal moving

You don't hit the century mark as a car company without a strong dealer network. And General Motors recognized early on the importance of the people who bring car and driver together. Billy Durant was a dealer guy. So was Alfred Sloan. Compare them with their contemporaries at Ford Motor Co., who sometimes seemed determined to punish their...


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Harley Earl creates a design empire

Styling, once an afterthought, became important sales tool

When Harley Earl was a teenager, his family spent summers camping at Bailey's Ranch, in the mountains north of Los Angeles. When Earl was 16, the summer was particularly wet, and he fashioned a series of toy cars for himself and his younger brother from clay they found. "What Harley J. Earl began in the clay of Bailey's Ranch, he later shaped into...


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UAW relations bottom out in 1998

A painful lesson: Flint strike showed labor-relations model had to change

The 1998 UAW strike at General Motors' Flint stamping operations was a disaster for the company. The 56-day strike shut all of GM's North American assembly plants. It cost the automaker about 500,000 vehicles and $2.8 billion in net losses. But both sides learned a valuable lesson: They resolved not to let miscommunication and intransigence cause...


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GM boots its giant parts maker from the nest (sort of)

Delphi spinoff was a spiral of disaster

Hopes were high when General Motors spun off its giant parts operation to create an independent Delphi Corp. in 1999. But it didn't take long for the enthusiasm to fade, says Don Runkle, Delphi's former vice chairman.


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GM decides product is the problem and Bob Lutz is the answer

GM's white(-haired) knight of product pizazz

In 2001, with seven years left to go in General Motors' first century, CEO Rick Wagoner knew that his product lineup badly needed upgrading if the company was going to have a second hundred years. GM had lost its product mojo long before. GM's car lineup had the appeal of hospital food. With the possible exception of the Corvette, there wasn't a...


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Reluctantly, GM recognizes workers' right to organize

Standing tall by sitting down: How upstart UAW won recognition at GM

In 1936, workers at General Motors' vast manufacturing complex in Flint, Mich., felt beaten down. Production lines were running at speeds that exhausted the workers. Employees complained they weren't allowed bathroom breaks. Protests quickly brought threats of firing or other types of retaliation.


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A vote of confidence for the CEO

Board's dramatic '06 vote gave support to Wagoner's repair plan

In April 2006, General Motors CEO Rick Wagoner went before the board of directors. He sought two things: permission to raise cash by selling 51 percent of GM's finance arm, GMAC Financial Services, for $14 billion; and a vote of confidence in his leadership. He got both -- and the chance to move forward on the turnaround plan that is still a...


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Kicking out the clutch

Automatic transmission revolutionized motoring

A bright light didn't suddenly flash above an engineer's head. And he didn't say "automatic transmission" and proceed to put one together. Development of that most useful of automobile accouterments was a long, slow process, marked by many failures. Contrary to popular belief, General Motors did not invent the automatic transmission. But GM...


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General Motors goes to war

Knudsen led the switch to a wartime economy

It didn't take William S. Knudsen long to make up his mind. President Roosevelt needed him, so there was only one answer the General Motors president could give. In May 1940, the United States was still at peace, but war was raging in Europe. Knudsen, a Danish immigrant, gathered family members in his Detroit living room and announced he was...


Health care costs enter GM balance sheet

Health care: From benefit to crisis

Benefits such as health care began during World War II, when companies could not raise wages. They were an innovative way to bring union peace and attract good employees. General Motors began paying a small portion of employees' health care costs in the 1940s. They became a part of the collective bargaining process in the 1950s, and by 1964 all...


A styling leader struts its stuff in the 1950s

Motorama years reflected a golden age of GM styling

From 1949 to 1961, General Motors showed off its styling prowess at eight traveling extravaganzas -- lavish road shows that displayed each division's creativity, styling ideas, technology and optimism. Many of the fanciful ideas displayed at those eight shows found their way into production cars.


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Unsafe at Any Speed creates an auto safety movement

Dough from GM lawsuit funded Nader's Center for Auto Safety

General Motors paid for the creation of the Center for Auto Safety, the watchdog group it has battled for several decades. Sounds outlandish, but it's true, says Ralph Nader, safety crusader and five-time presidential candidate. Nader set up the center with part of the $425,000 court settlement paid by GM in 1970 for invasion of his privacy.


GM 100 Digital Edition
GM 100 Digital Edition

COMMENTARY
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GM's story is the American story >>
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A powerful force in a century of change >>
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Perot was a burr under Roger Smith's saddle >>
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The Cadillac caper: Brand claimed Lincoln's sales crown in '98; but the figures were phony >>
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GM and Flint grew together >>
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The way out of the maze: Use overseas strengths >>
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Below the surface, always something >>
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The auto industry paid the price when GM's gumshoes trailed Nader >>
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