Our Daydreaming Designer Imagines The Nightmares That Could Have Happened If Dead GM Brands Survived

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Do we miss the plethora of brands that General Motors used to offer? Thinking about that the other day, I was a bit torn in my feelings towards that alternate reality.

2006 Pontiac Gto

sources: wikipedia, wikipedia, and wikipedia

I mean, it might be nice to have modern day GTOs or 442s sitting in Pontiac or Oldsmobile showroom, or even see a new Saturn Sky roadster launch. Could a reborn SAAB Sonnett sports car have appeared on retro-modern Darth Vader wheels? Thanks to economic downturns and the financial collapse of 2008, we’ll never know. However, as much as I might miss the what-could-have-been gems of these dead brands surviving, there is one thing to remember:

There is a potential dark side to this scenario.

You see, for a dealer to actually want to carry a brand it needs to offer at least some semblance of a ‘model lineup’, so every cool enthusiast coupe needs to be complemented by some basic sedans or SUV in different sizes. To accomplish this, it’s almost certain that General Motors would do what they did for decades: do some tricky badge engineering. Use the same car again and again and again to save development costs and reap the profits.

Let’s say each brand needs a ‘small sedan’ competitor in the lineup. We can start with a Chevy Sonic, a car that is likely to come up if you just type ‘car’ into Google Image Search and a random four wheeled conveyance appears. For each brand, GM would merely make some cosmetic changes and possibly a few modifications to the suspension tuning.  Take a look below (it’s a busy week, so I apologize that these are a bit rough, but you’ll get the idea):

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source: GM

Despite this total ruse, General Motors marketing would use glowing words to make these essentially identical cars sound like unique representatives of their respective brands. Here is some of the vibrant prose extolling the unique virtues of barely different versions of exactly the same car:

“Born from jets, the 9-0 is a remarkable new car from the European engineers at Saab”

(…if three spoke wheels count as European engineering)

“The Reeflex is just what you expect from Saturn- the unexpected”

(….unexpectedly dull)

“The legendary name of Sunbird comes back to bring Pontiac excitement to your life”

(….maybe those red gauge lights inside? Is that exciting? I did add ‘Bandit’ wheels at least)

“Altair- because innovation is a tradition at Oldsmobile”

(…the large double-snout grille looks sort of Pontiac-like, but it is meant to bring back the double grille style of Oldsmobiles in the heyday of the sixties and seventies. Plus, it’s sort of like the latest BMW giant-snout noses that remind me of the dog grooming van in Dumb and Dumber, where the ‘most annoying sound in the world’ that they make is IDENTICAL to the noise of the seatbelt buzzer in my 1990 420SEL)

“Hummer presents the H-0: the small car with the huge sense of adventure”

(…warning: you might get stuck driving over wet leaves in this thing. Actually it would help to bring the fuel economy average of the brand down if Hummer had survived as a gasoline brand before being ‘reborn’)

I’d like to think that this scenario wouldn’t have happened, but the temptation would likely have been too great. Admittedly, GM has been offering a bit more differentiation today where they had once simply done the bare minimum to add identity to nameplates, particularly during the seventies and eighties.

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Screenshot (169)

source: Curbside Classic

Buyers can still be surprisingly ‘brand loyal’ to cars that were the same underneath, and they seem to believe some of this silly hype even today. For example, a person I know wanted to look at a GMC truck over a Chevy ‘since they’re really more heavy duty and the brand knows trucks’. Yeah, sure.

Are buyers more sophisticated today than they were before the Finaciapocolypse? I’d like to think so, but nobody has ever gone broke underestimating the intellect of the buying public, and I fear that given the opportunity, The General might have tried again.

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43 Responses

      1. we got a Buick-ized Aztek that looked sort of like a deformed RX300

        Yes we did. That gussied up Aztek looked to my eye the perfect living nightmare for aging “temporarily embarrassed millionare” Reaganite types who couldn’t float an actual RX300 because they had long ago blown through whatever finances they had on one upping the neighborhood and predatory megachurch prosperity preachers. To save face they told themselves over and over and over they were the better for it because they were buying ‘murican and not some “Jap crap”.

      2. There is generally a consensus that the Aztec if the ugliest car ever made, but I disagree. I think it’s the Buick Rendezvous. At least they were trying to be creative with the Aztec, but the Buick exudes the opposite of that. Complete and total apathy and mediocrity.

  1. “… a reborn SAAB Sonnett…”

    I can’t take credit for the verse, but as the former owner of a ’69 Sonett V4 I do have to point out:

    The one-N Sonett,
    He’s a Swede.
    The two-N sonnet,
    Verse you read.
    And I would bet
    An Easter bonnet
    There ain’t no
    Two-N, two-T sonnett.

    (Apologies to Ogden Nash.)

    1. NoMoreSaloons- it used to be that way. You can see that picture of the J cars and the Pontiac and Olds are very similar. I looked at the death-throes Olds noses of the early 2000s and they were so bland that I had to do at least something different, hence the retro nose on the Pontiac version that is less BMW style than that last GTOs/G8s. And yes, we’re getting surprisingly technical on something painfully stupid.

  2. I’ve never understood the Corporate Face mentality. Line up all the Audi’s side by side and I still can’t tell them apart.
    I could also design every Tesla by simply stretching or pulling a single photo.
    Lame.
    The people want cars with personality!

    1. Well 3 and Y look the same (just vertically stretched), but 3 and S look very different. Basically just the fog light area became aligned within the past model year, but they have different faces, different headlights, etc.

  3. Considering the love affair with all things offroad, I am kind of surprised they did not keep with the H3 as the standard Hummer and then made a sport model with removable roof and doors. and then expanded upon the alpha models with a SAS front end. Honestly the Newer Colorado Diesel 2.8 and a 4 to 1 transfer case with a solid front axle and removable body panels seems very possible and competitive with the diesel Wrangler 4 doors.

  4. Working at GM post Roger Smith era this would not happen as much. The Fortune magazine cover Autopian posted on August 18 woke up GM after that – if you can’t fool a business magazine, then you’re in bigger trouble with the car enthusiasts. For example, the GMT35X series of SUVs all had the same profile, but most of their exterior skins were stamped different (the most obvious: the Chevy and GMC versions had squared-off wheel openings while the premium versions had theirs radiused, plus there were differences in belt lines – one Jalopnik writer correctly remarked that it was the worst case of platform prostitution he had ever seen). Most of this was politics, starting with the dealers of competing brands wanting similar models (Yes! GM did a great job of poaching sales from their own brands). Excess production capacity tied with union agreements, creating models like the long wheelbase versions of the GMT35X (I had asked a GM manager, and gotten written up for it: Why? A few hundred dollars more would get me a Suburban or Yukon XL, proven and bigger machines). The other aspect was economic, to satisfy dealers on product, it was cheaper to change the plastic portions of the vehicle than metal (2013-2014 Chevy Malibu, actually a Opel Insignia knockoff with a different grille – one of the first GM products to use 3D printing for prototyping to revise – most of the sheet metal stayed the same). When a company does a major change, the costs can be significant. One GM engineer complained to me about the costs of adding the Olds Intrigue to the Pontiac Grand Prix assembly line over the fact that the designer insisted on a 12mm difference in wheelbase (hint: the change was in the millions of dollars and he had just gotten through with putting in his part of the Grand Prix line a year earlier).

        1. Unless I am misreading your comment, they were indeed related. The last generation Saab 9-5 was basically the same car as the Regal GS. Shared chassis, drivetrain, and most everything else. It was Saab-ized in a few cosmetic ways, Still a striking car, my nephew has a 2011 9-5, and loves it. Can’t say it is the most reliable car though, it always has a quirk or two happening. The latest is the trunk pops open randomly, which is less than desireable.

  5. This alternate reality involves much more than rebadged GM sedans.

    Think of all the SUV’s!

    The Oldsmobile Bravada/ Chevy Traverse/ Pontiac GX8 (Adding “X” since G8 was a sedan)/ Buick Enclave/ Saturn Outlook. You just know the Cutlass would be the Olds take on the current Blazer.

    I guess the upside is the Trans Am would be the Camaro’s twin, like always.

      1. I… I… think I might be tempted by an H-O with a winch and basket roof rack, even if the POS is based on the Chevy Sonic. The idea is so hideous it circles back around to what I imagine to be attractive. It occupies the same mental space as the Impreza, which is an economy car, but looks good lifted as the Crosstrek.

    1. Imagine a Trax with that treatment. True GM style, the mechanicals with the 1.4T, 6 speed auto and AWD wouldn’t have been half bad. GM Korea at least taught other GM plants how to make a rattle free interior; say what you will about the materials.

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