A farewell to General Motors

Winningreen Discourse                                        A042909
A farewell to General Motors
By Tom Randall
April 29, 2009
Well, it's Government Motors now and it will never be what it once was…or might have become.
It was as slick a takeover as any since Lenin and the Mensheviks locked the meeting room door and declared themselves to be the Bolsheviks.
First, Comrade Obama suckered the hapless management that had run General Motors into taking bailout money.  Then he shipped their CEO off to a figurative Gulag and replaced him with a puppet regime.  Then the new puppet governor suggested converting the bailout loan to a government equity position, undoubtedly the plan all along.  So the government now owns the company and General Motors is now Government Motors.  The same thing is taking place at Chrysler, except it's the unions that get a 55 percent share.  Ford will likely just be regulated out of business.
BINGO!  The auto industry is being nationalized with breathtaking swiftness.
A longing look back
 You can't help but wonder what would be going through the mind of Billy Durant who founded the company in 1916 on the philosophy of "a car for every purse and purpose."  It took Durant three tries to get General Motors off the ground.  His first two tries, United Motors and International Motors, quickly failed but capitalism and Yankee perseverance saw him through.
Also, you have to wonder what Durant's successor, Al Sloan, who grew the company to produce nearly half of all domestic auto sales at its zenith, would think of his company's doom.  Or the brilliant All-American entrepreneurs who preceded both of them: David Dunbar Buick, Ransom E. Olds, Louis and Arthur Chevrolet and Lawrence P. Fisher.
Two other men, however, came to symbolize the heart, soul and capabilities of the company: Harley Earl and Zora Arkus-Duntov.
Harley Earl was the designer for his father, J.W. Earl's custom coach business in Los Angeles.  There, in a block-long shop the son designed and the father built exotic cars for movie stars made rich by the fledgling talking movie industry.  His work so impressed GM executives he was brought to the company in 1927 to head the Art and Color Section, reporting only to Sloan, who had become CEO.
At first, many of his designs could not even be built because the technology did not exist to bend metal into the necessary shapes on a production basis.  But his design influence was powerful right from the beginning and his designs sold.  By the early 1950s "Hollywood Harley," as many called the flamboyant designer, was GM's head of product planning.  And did he have plans.
In 1953 GM's traveling "Motorama" of concept cars featured one that was destined for production — America's first sports car, the Chevrolet Corvette.
Zora Arkus-Duntov, a Belgium-born, German-trained, Russian engineer had fled to the United States to escape the Nazis. In early 1953 he saw Earl's gleaming fiberglass masterpiece during the New York stop of the Motorama.  He was stunned by the Corvette's styling but disappointed by the lackluster mechanicals: an in-line six-cylinder engine, 2-speed automatic transmission and sedan suspension.
Duntov wrote Ed Cole, head of GM engineering, saying he would be proud to work on the car and included an engineering paper in which he described how to estimate a car's theoretical top speed.  By May he was at GM working on the 'Vette.
Soon came the famous 283 cubic inch Chevy V-8 with a bewildering array of cam shaft, carburetion (including American industry's first fuel injection), transmission and suspension options. 
Duntov wrote a seminal paper titled Thoughts pertaining to Youth, Hot-rodders and Chevrolet and soon Chevy engineers began showing up at drive-in restaurants, where hot car drivers frequented, such as Shwartz's in Kalamazoo, Michigan.  In their trunks were new Duntov camshafts, aluminum radiators and other experimental parts looking for young road testers.
Thus, Earl, Duntov and their Corvette touched off styling and performance competition that many have called the golden age of the American automobile.  Cars from that era are now highly prized, and pricey collectors' items.
True, the cars didn't get good mileage and tended to not last long without a lot of repairs.  But gas was 19 cents per gallon and a generation that was deprived by the depression and tested by the war decided it was time to reward itself, with a new car every two to three years, if necessary, and provide their kids with what they had missed out on.
They were cars for their time, created by men who understood both.
The daunting look ahead
Truly marvelous engineering advances are in the works at nearly every automobile company.  New engines, drive trains and materials that will provide dramatically improved mileage and lower emissions while retaining performance, size and safety.  Unfortunately, you can probably now count GM and maybe all of Detroit out of the new development race.
You see, the Harley Earls and Zora Arkus-Duntovs of the world don't generally work for government bureaucrats. Particularly bureaucrats who understand neither cars nor the times.
Note:  Our thanks to The Idaho Corvette Page and Corvette, America's Sports Car by Randy Leffingwell for sprucing up some old memories.
Contact: Tom Randall
Winningreen LLC
Phone: 773-857-5086
e-mail: trandall@winningreen.com