Bill Cutshall’s Weblog

February 20, 2009

A Eulogy for a Dear Friend I Didn’t Like Very Much

Pontiac is dead.  Saturn is dead.  Hummer is dead.  The plug on Saab’s life-support machine is only loosely in the socket.  As a car guy and a GM fan (all you Ford guys can mock me but you know how it is) I should be terribly sad about the state of The General but honestly, I’m not.

Have you ever had a good friend that you watched turn to alcohol, drugs, dangerous behavior, and questionable decisions so much so that after doing everything in your power to help them you simply had to distance yourself for your own safety?  You know they are going to end up in the hospital, in prison, or in the morgue so when they finally do end up in the hospital you are kind of glad because at least it wasn’t one of the other two choices.  That’s how I feel about GM right now.

To be clear, I have owned my share of GM products in my time, specifically a Corvette, a couple Camaros, and a Hummer.  Before you cast me into some mustachioed level of hell because you think you know me (and suspect that I might secretly want to wear a gold medallion of my astrological sign on a thick chain necklace) understand that I have also owned cars built by Chrysler, Plymouth, Nissan, Lexus, Volvo, BMW, Jaguar, Triumph, Land Rover, Porsche, and Ferrari.  I am a car guy.

There was something about each and every one of them to love and over time they all developed flaws (with the possible exception of the Lexus.  I suspect it might have been carved from marble) but only in the GM and Chrysler products did I notice flaws from day one.  I am convinced that GM engineers conducted a study where they determined that the average American car consumer spends more time outside their vehicle than they do behind the driver’s wheel and thus concluded that interiors just didn’t need to be a major focus for them.  Aside from the fact that their interiors seemed to have been designed using approximation math, injection-molded from the thinnest, cheapest, recycled milk-jugs they could find, fitted together using rubber mallets, and quality-checked for “meh”, their interiors were doomed from the start.  They seemed to have been designed by Mattel with giant spastic children as the intended user.  Their interiors always reminded me of a children’s toy that had been left out in the sun or possibly put in the oven for a few minutes.  Big, clunky, amorphous blobs of buttons stuck everywhere seemed intended for people with hams as appendages rather than fingers.  I never really could forgive them for that no matter how much power there was under the hood or how much I liked the looks of the car I was driving.

Combine that attitude with an apparent staunch conviction that all Americans want a car that will glide over a boulder-strewn highway without spilling their coffee and will never, ever, ever need to turn and their products always seemed a little bland.  The wanna-be engineer/automotive tycoon in me thinks they should have spent more time on chassis engineering in order to have a solid foundation upon which to build a car.  Instead they seem to have cut corners in that department and used the time they saved there to call and get tee-times for the days they should have spent on the interior and exterior styling phases.

Every car nut with an ounce of motor oil in their veins sincerely believes they could engineer and produce a better car than the XYZ-5000 currently on sale at the mega-lot.  When that feeling arises in myself, I have always tried to quell it with realizations that issues of production, long-term durability, safety, and economic viability are far too complex for my simple grasp of things to understand.  Looking back, though, I realize that I never thought I could out-engineer the folks at BMW, Porsche, Mercedes, or Volkswagen and only sporadically did I question the choices made by  Toyota, Honda, and Nissan.  I only ever really got that feeling from GM products, especially Pontiacs.

So why does Pontiac in particular draw fewer tears from me?  Simple.  Their product line was composed entirely of someone else’s mediocre cars which were then tarted-up with way too many ill-conceived, ill-fitting plastic body panel covers.  They were bland products which they attempted and failed to make interesting through deception rather than actual attention to quality or design.

Fifteen years ago GM should have pared their product line down to a few brands and built a strong portfolio on that.  Instead they swelled to an organization where dozens of brands shared common parts and engineering and eventually produced very similar lines of nearly identical mediocre vehicles.  The saddest part is that after finally shuttering Oldsmobile and with the handwriting beginning to appear on Buick’s wall, GM was finally making some very decent vehicles.  Good ones, actually.  Drive a Malibu and see if, other than the name and giant gaudy gold bow tie on the back, it isn’t a better car than a Camry or Accord.  Drive a Saturn Sky and see if it isn’t within spitting distance of being as good as a Mazda Miata.  Drive a Corvette and see if it doesn’t impress you as much as any sports car costing 50% more money.  Drive a GMC Acadia and see if it isn’t a stellar family utility vehicle.  All these good cars could been put together into one very strong product line.  Instead they were each used as halo vehicles to tow along an entire range of lackluster, poorly thought out cars designed, as Jeremy Clarkson once said “in a coffee break by people who couldn’t care less about cars“.

I had hopes that my old friend GM would get their act together, quit making questionable decisions, stop drinking, and get on with the job of making quality cars.  They were showing positive signs.  Brands like Pontiac, GMC, Buick, Saturn, Hummer, and even Cadillac were nothing more than their old friends with bad habits that dragged them back out to the bars time and time again.  Hopefully the demise of Pontiac, Saab, and Hummer will prove to be a wake-up call to the rest of the organization that splitting time, effort, budget, and public opinion up over such a broad range of brands is wasteful, inefficient, and a sure road to mediocrity.

Rest in peace, Pontiac.  So long Hummer.  Goodbye Saab.  I can’t say I am sorry to see you go because of the effect you had on my friend Cheverolet.  I am only sorry you didn’t take Buick with you.  Cadillac, I hope this acts as a wakeup call for you.

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