General Motors is really a fascinating company. They’ve been one of the largest automakers in the world for decades, and yet sometimes they feel like they’re just coasting along, cranking out forgettable pedestrian cars to people whose main automotive dream is to not be a pedestrian. But that’s not really seeing GM for what it is: It’s an absolute engineering powerhouse, the likes of which almost no other carmaker on Earth can really match, at least not when GM really decides to flex its engineering might. But all this engineering prowess is tempered by a quality that GM has that is also unmatched in the automotive world: the ability to develop something amazing, and then completely screw up every single action after that point.
It seems that GM has managed feats of stepping on its own corporate genitals more often and with greater impact than almost any other automaker, and while other companies have also done zero with some important innovations, I think it’s worth considering some of the General’s regrettable missteps, because they’re big ones. I’ve picked five times that GM has engineered some sort of incredibly significant automotive development — something that legitimately changed the entire industry, and then somehow GM-fumbled everything, leaving the company to effectively play catch up years later.
Look at this list we have here: each of these is a huge deal, and GM had it to market first, and yet still somehow couldn’t play it into any sort of advantage for itself, because, again, that’s what GM does. Let’s dive in:
Yes, turbocharging! An absolute staple of the modern turbo four-cylinder two-liter-ish engines that seem to be near default for the vast majority of cars you see on the roads, and GM was the first to bring a mass-produced turbo car to market. In fact, The General had two in 1962, the Oldsmobile Jetfire and the Corvair Monza. These first turbos were primarily used for performance boosts, with the turbo on the Corvair’s air-cooled flat-six engine making a damn good 150 hp and the Olds’ making 215 hp from its 3.5-liter V8, letting it get to 100 mph a full 10 seconds faster than the normally-aspirated V8.
Unfortunately for the Oldsmobile version at least, to get the bolt-on Garret turbocharger to work, GM had to include a separate tank with a cocktail made of methyl alcohol and water, to act as an anti-knock Martini for the engine. Of course, this is too much to ask of American car owners, so there were complaints and problems, and even though the Corvair turbo setup was free of this issue and kept going a few more years and with even better power, GM lost interest in turbochargers until 1978 3.8-liter Buicks, but long after cars like the BMW 2002 picked up the idea around 1970, and by the 1980s, when the world was gripped with Turbomania, GM was just an also-ran in the turbo game, even though they pioneered the whole damn thing decades before.
What if GM stuck with it, and had turbo four cylinder Impalas in the late ’60s that got the same power as V8s but used half the gas? Think how much better prepared they’d have been for the 1973 Oil Crisis! They’d have dominated everyone, and perhaps even kept the influx of Japanese cars at bay, at least for a while longer! But, no, this is GM. That’s not how they do things.
Modern Electric Cars
Yeah, I said it: modern electric cars. I know Tesla tends to get the credit for re-invigorating electric vehicles and dragging them from embarrassing golf carts that gave Ed Begley, Jr. erections into sleek, fast, comfortable, desirable rides. But the truth is that Tesla was beaten to the punch by GM, because when The Biggest Of The Big Three introduced the GM EV1 in 1996, it was an absolute revelation — the first time the public had gotten a glimpse of a serious, desirable, and usable electric car.
The EV1 was a sleek two-seater that looked like the future. It was as fast as most mainstream cars were in the era with its 137 hp motor, and had better acceleration than most, because that’s how electric motors work. Early lead acid-battery versions only got about 55 miles of range – still vastly better than most of the Crap Era EVs that came before – and later nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery ones got a respectable and usable 105 miles of range. Those are numbers that beat the first Nissan Leaf, which was introduced to the market a decade and a half later, in 2010.
I talked about how the EV1 ushered in this Tesla-dominated era we’re in now a while back, if you’d like to endure that:
GM built close to 1,100 EV1s, and then, in a spectacularly GM-ish act of self-sabotage, took them all back and crushed them, despite lots of public outcry from owners, because, again, this is what GM does! They pioneer something amazing, go through all the effort of development and engineering and then don’t just not follow through on a promising start, they actually destroy all evidence that their good idea existed at all. Why? This isn’t just an act of stepping on one’s own [toe], this is going out and buying a new set of golf shoes just so you can really stomp on your own [toe], and make it hurt.
Oh, and, even better! If this wasn’t enough, almost a decade later, in 2003, GM showed the world a revolutionary new hydrogen fuel cell EV concept called Hy-Wire:
While hydrogen fuel cells really haven’t caught on, you know what did? GM’s revolutionary skateboard chassis design for EVs. Replace those hydrogen tanks with batteries and you effectively have the platform that all modern EVs – from Volkswagen to Rivian to Ford to Hyundai to Tesla to whomever – use today. And guess what GM did with it?
Jack. Jack feces.
It did spend a lot of money on it, though, as the LA Times notes in its 2003 article titled “GM Takes a Radical Turn With Its Hy-Wire Hydrogen-Powered Car“:
GM has spent almost $1 billion on fuel-cell development over the last few years and says it spent more than that developing its now-canceled EV1 battery electric car.
“But spending is just part of it,” Cole noted. “Outsmarting the opposition is another part.” Indeed, Toyota, Honda and DaimlerChrysler are seen as fierce rivals to GM for fuel-cell supremacy over the long haul.
Oh, and the best quote from that article?:
But some experts say that of all the automakers, GM is racing out ahead, developing cars that not only use hydrogen instead of gasoline but also replace old-fashioned hydraulic and mechanical parts, including brakes and steering systems, with high-tech electronics.
In fact, the company has vowed to become the first carmaker to sell a million fuel-cell vehicles and expects to start putting them on the market in 2010 — five to 10 years sooner than the timetable cited by most of its competitors.
Electric Pick-Up Trucks
I’m including this one as an example of a major automotive milestone that’s happening right around us, as we speak, this very moment. We all know about the massive hype surrounding the Tesla Cybertruck and EV trucks like the Ford F-150 Lightning, but the truth is when it comes to a major OEM building and selling an electric pickup truck right from the factory, GM was first, with its Chevy S-10 Electric, built and sold between 1997 and 1998.
The S-10 Electric used the same basic tech as the GM EV1, and had a 114 hp motor driven by, at first, a lead-acid battery pack that gave a meager 45-ish miles of range, but later was upgraded to a nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) battery pack that allowed for a respectable 72 miles of range.
Under 500 were actually built, but these things were used in fleets and while it was something of an experiment, it was still a real, all-electric pickup truck from a major OEM, a solid three and a half decades before anything from Ford or Rivian or Tesla.
You know what pretty much every modern car has inside it? A touchscreen. A big, full-color touchscreen on the center stack that controls most aspects of the car. They’re ubiquitous. These started getting common around, oh, 2010 or so, but, as always, GM was there way, way before everyone else, and then, you guessed it, gave up on it, only to watch the concept come back in a huge way, with them no longer at the vanguard. Yes, GM had touchscreens in their cars as early as 1986, starting with the Buick Riviera and then ending up in the Buick Reatta.
These were green-phosphor CRTs, like what you’d have looked at while playing Oregon Trail on an Apple II in your middle school. But they worked effectively just like modern in-dash touch screens, with different modes for different functions, all activated by your fingers poking words and images on a screen.
GM never standardized these touch screens across their lines of cars, never put them on more cars than the Riviera or Reatta, never continued to develop them, move them to LCD displays, nothing. They never did anything with them, really, even though they were a solid 30 years ahead of everybody else, and could have leapfrogged the whole industry, and made everyone else scramble to catch up to GM, since next to this, all those old knobs and dials and buttons would have looked archaic. Again, that’s just not the GM way.
Airbags. Yes, airbags. How many lives have these saved over the years? Countless, because I can’t count them. And the first car that came with them right from the factory wasn’t some safety-humping V0lvo or Saab, it was an Oldsmobile Toronado, in 1973, followed the next year by Buicks and Chevrolets — all GM brands. Here’s a dealer training video about these airbags, which GM called the Air Cushion Restraint System:
At the time, these weren’t even thought of as something to be used with seat belts, but something that would work instead of seat belts, since Americans had so much stubborn resistance to wearing seat belts, which it seems, every single person hated until we all collectively changed our minds in the mid to late 1980s in the biggest mass shifting of behavior since the Great Vowel Shift.
GM offered airbags for all of three years, getting rid of the option in 1976. About two decades later, airbags were made mandatory by the government, and once again GM was no longer a pioneer, just another automaker grudgingly adding these revolutionary safety devices to their cars, devices that they had available before anyone else, and, again, didn’t realize how important they would be.
Damn, I’m getting worked up just writing this – how does GM do this over and over again, about such massive things? We’re not talking about how it came up with seat massagers or digital clocks in 1953 — these are all significant automotive developments, and every single time they squandered their considerable lead.
Oh, GM. You’re incredible — you really are. You big brilliant idiot.