For the past couple years, we’ve been hearing a lot about New General Motors, the company that arose from the ashes of bankruptcy with a slimmed-down lineup, new management, and an ownership stake from Uncle Sam. It’s all New GM this, Chevy Volt that. But what about Old GM? Well, if you want to know about Old GM, he’s easy to find.
I meet Old GM at a down-and-out bar on the outskirts of Detroit. He’s disheveled—looks like he’s been holding down a barstool in this dive his whole life. I’m here to talk. I want to hear his side of the story. And at this point, it seems I’m the only one.
I buy him a beer and ask a simple question: Where did it all go wrong? “If I had to put my finger on it,” he replies, “I’d say things really started to slide when we went all-in with the name ‘Cutlass.’ When we introduced the Cutlass Cutlass Cutlass, people didn’t understand how it was different from the regular Cutlass Cutlass. We even licensed the name to Perdue chicken in 1986—you bought an Oldsmobile, we threw in a case of Cutlass Cutlets.”
Oldsmobile disappeared under Old GM’s watch, but I’m interested in the Old GM brands that were culled in the transition to New GM—Saturn, Saab, Hummer, and Pontiac. “Saturn, man. We had big dreams for Saturn,” he says. “Nobody else had a business plan based on great customer service and plastic cars. Nobody. And we executed it to the letter. That SL1 was one plastic sumbitch, and when you walked into the dealership they gave you a foot rub.”
OK, what about Saab? “Saab, yeah. My bad on that,” he says. “But was it wrong to want a TrailBlazer SS with a nicer interior?”
Saab, at least, found a buyer. Hummer wasn’t so fortunate. “Hummer was misunderstood,” says Old GM. “People didn’t realize that the Chevy dealer down the street was selling the exact same vehicles but with different styling. I guess in retrospect it’s cooler to build faux-military vehicles when you’re not engaged in two actual wars. But that was just poor timing. Like the O. J. Simpson fan club that I started in May of ’94.”
Saab, Saturn, and Hummer were all relative newcomers to the GM fold. Pontiac, though—Pontiac gave us the 1964 GTO. Pontiac was different. Even at the end, everyone agreed that the G8 was a sweet car. But there’s an elephant in the room. “The Aztek,” Old GM sighs wearily. “It’s cliché to hate the Aztek. But riddle me this: Why doesn’t the Buick Rendezvous attract that level of scorn? It had the same awkward proportions and general pointlessness. Plus, it was a Buick version of the Aztek—an Aztek for people who weren’t quite ready for the rock-and-roll excitement of a deformed Pontiac minivan. Isn’t that worse? I think it’s worse.”
Now that we’ve picked the scabs of the failed brands, I steer Old GM onto the topic of bankruptcy, the bailout, and the oversight of the fellow they called the Car Czar.
“Steve Rattner? That guy’s a real genius—according to him.” Old GM scowls and orders a shot of rotgut whiskey. It appears I’ve struck a nerve. “Have you read Rattner’s book, How I Saved GM All By Myself and Did I Mention I’m Awesome?” he asks. “The last time I met someone that self-congratulatory, I was at Kanye West’s monthly birthday party—yeah, he has one every month.”
I remind Old GM that whatever he thinks of Rattner, some of his own personnel decisions didn’t exactly put the company on a path to greatness. For instance, what was the rationale in hiring former Bausch & Lomb president Ron Zarrella? “I thought talent was talent,” he says. “But it turned out that Ron’s skill set didn’t translate. Or maybe the market just wasn’t ready for bifocal windshields. But the staff loved him. Every time you’d go to his office for a meeting, you knew you’d score some samples of saline solution.”
Old GM’s got more to say, including a pile of questions for his anointed successor. Why is the Pontiac G8 really still around but only for cops? Why bother claiming that the Volt never ever ever drives its wheels with the gas motor when it sometimes does? Why can you get Recaro seats in a Cadillac but not in a Corvette? Old GM signals the bartender for another round. “Why not?” he says. “I’m not driving.”
Illustration by Tim Marrs