Today marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of one of America’s great entrepreneurs and the founder of General Motors, William Durant.
Durant gained famed as the founder of GM, a multi-brand holding company with different lines of cars designed to appeal to consumers of varying economic means.
Durant was the grandson of a former governor of Michigan and his chief interest was business. Instead of attending college he choose to go to work in his grandfather’s lumber business, one of the largest of the many large lumber mills in Flint, Mich, according to Arthur Pound’s book The Turning Wheel: The Story of General Motors Through Twenty-Five Years, 1908-1933.
He then branched out by opening his own insurance agency before he was 21.
“That suited him, because insurance was something you could go out and sell,” Pound writes. “No waiting around for customers to come to you, as in the store. An almost feverish activity possessed him. ‘Billy’ Durant above everything needed action. While possessed of a notable faculty for remaining calm in the midst of alarms, he seemed to require dramatic tension in business. Yet he had also the power of concentrating intently on work.”
As a bit of car enthusiast, particularly older pre-1970 American cars, watching General Motors’ implosion has been particularly painful.
How the company could have squandered the name recognition and customer loyalty built up over the decades in its Oldsmobile and Pontiac brands, for example, to the point that those venerable lines would be phased out seems inconceivable even now, more than half a decade after the last Olds rolled off the assembly line in Lansing, Mich.
So Russ Roberts’ post at Cafe Hayek about a rather odd GM television ad caught my attention:
Gary North at lewrockwell.com has a piece titled Oldsmobile Nation in which he details the downfall of the venerable General Motors line to show that our nation’s future is not tied to General Motors, Ford and Chrysler.
As part of his piece Mr. North describes Oldsmobile‘s journey from being the best-selling American car in the 1970s to being discontinued in 2004, and asks “Do you miss the Oldsmobile? Have you given it much thought?”
Actually, Mr. North, some of us do and some of us have. The point of his article is that America will survive even if the Big Three don’t, but in fact, nothing is more emblematic of Detroit’s downfall than the collapse of Oldsmobile.
Olds traces its heritage back to 1897, when Ransom E. Olds began producing cars in Lansing, Mich. The Curved-Dash Olds (1901-07) was the world’s first mass-produced car, built on the first automobile production line.
Oldsmobile took off in 1949 when it introduced their Rocket engine, which used an overhead valve V-8 design rather than the flathead straight-8. Boasting such marquee names as the Super 88, 442 and Toronado, Oldsmobile became a favorite of hot rodders and car enthusiasts. Lee Petty, Richard Petty’s father, won the first Daytona 500 in a 1959 Olds Super 88.
Sales were strong into the 1990s, but then GM arrogantly began to strip Olds of its individuality and the company’s signature cars gave way to rebadged models of other GM vehicles. No need to listen to consumers, right, GM?
For Oldsmobile enthusiasts, the writing was on the wall when the company came out with the slogan “this isn’t your father’s Oldsmobile.” That was the whole problem. My father’s Oldsmobile was sleek, fast and stylish. What the company was turning out by the end was, often, none of the above.
Mr. North is partially right when he says Oldsmobile is “gone, forgotten and unlamented.” Yes, the company that GM shuttered in 2004 is gone and unlamented, but that’s because it was a shell of what it once had been.
What happened to Olds is relevant today because it’s indicative of what the future may hold if the Big Three get a bailout. It’s interesting how Toyota, BMW, Honda and other foreign companies that make cars in the U.S. aren’t screaming for government money.
Does anyone really think that a company propped up with federal funds is going to change its modus operandi? If GM can let a premier line like Oldsmobile, one of the most storied makes in auto lore, simply slip into oblivion, what’s to keep them from running every other line into the ground, as well?
If they want to do it on their own dime, fine; but don’t expect me to celebrate if our government decides to throw good money after bad.