On September 16, 1908, a high school dropout in New Jersey created an incorporation that would later become one of the largest conglomerates in the auto industry. Through many rises and falls in the years to follow, there’s no doubt that General Motors has become one of the biggest players in both the US and the world auto industry.
William Durant’s company was built on the premise that a wide variety of cars could be produced for a myriad of consumers – making way for the many brands that GM would eventually acquire. This gave GM an edge against competitors like Ford, whose narrow offerings couldn’t capture as wide of a swath of the market. Durant had made a fortune in the carriage market previously by doing just this. By applying this philosophy to the automotive market, General Motors was able to capture the interest of a wider array of loyal buyers.
Their brands over the years have included Saturn, Oldsmobile, Pontiac, Isuzu, British luxury automaker Lotus and international brands like Opel and Holden. These brands have graced our roads with some extraordinary vehicles like the iconic Corvette and Camaro. Of course, there have also been some, shall we say, less than successful ones over the years (anyone remember the retro-themed Chevrolet HHR and awkwardly-shaped Pontiac Aztec?). Nevertheless, the auto giant has done a great job at keeping revolution at the forefront of their business strategy, constantly pushing boundaries and competing between brands to make vehicles become what they are today.
When General Motors was founded, the players in the automotive industry’s field included over 250 independent manufacturers. The market was saturated. With so many different options and companies, it became common for buyers to make down payments, only for the manufacturer to go out of business before their car could be delivered. The American auto market was unstable and independent. But that would soon change.
From its start, the company faced highs and lows. Early in their history, the company began collecting major brands. Buick, Olds Motor Company, Cadillac and Oakland (later called Pontiac) were all acquired by 1910. Durant was ousted from his presidency of the company, only to found Chevrolet Motor Company and eventually return.
Through two world wars, a stock market crash and many leadership changes, the conglomerate persevered and came out doing quite well.
The next 60 years
By 1954, General Motors accounted for 54% of the American auto market. This era brought some of the most iconic designs of the time, with the Corvette hitting the road in 1953, followed by the Pontiac GTO and Chevrolet’s Camaro later in the ’60s.
Other intriguing classics came out of this era, like the tail-finned Bel Air and Cadillac’s opulent Eldorado. This was also a time of continuing to improve long-running favorites like the Suburban, which has had some variation in production since the 1930s.
Interestingly enough, they were the first to introduce the automatic transmission in 1939, and also the first to include turn signals as a standard feature. Other credits to their name include anti-lock brakes and the first hydrogen-cell fuel car.
GM’s reign continued until 1990, when their share of the market dropped to just 35%. Unpopular models and some quality problems plagued their products during the ’80s and early ’90s. It took several years to regain consumer interest and trust, as competing imports brands like Toyota began to increase in popularity.
General Motors had lost more than $38 billion in 2007 – a problem that landed them in front of the United States Congress asking for a bailout. This eventually led them to file bankruptcy in June of 2009.
To add insult to injury, an ignition switch problem ends with 1.37 million compact cars being recalled for vehicles manufactured 2003-2007. Needless to say, it was more than a rocky start to the 21st century.
Releases of forward-thinking designs and powertrains have become a staple of the company’s offerings. To pursue some environmental goals, vehicles like the affordable and long-ranged Chevrolet Bolt and PHEVs like the Volt and Cadillac ELR joined the lineup. In fact, General Motors is on target to sell their 200,000th EV in the U.S. in early 2019.
Staying on the vanguard of market trends is another strength. After investing money in San Francisco-based autonomous driving startup Cruise and the ridesharing app Lyft, it looks like they’re in a good place to keep up with the market, whatever changes the next few years may bring.
Today, General Motors is the first automaker to have both a female CEO and CFO, bringing some diversity into a mostly male-dominated industry. Of course, it’s not their first time; back in the 1950s, they were one of the first automakers to hire women designers.
After all, it’s always been about a revolution for this company. It’s this forward-thinking ideology that helps them succeed in the current marketplace and keep up with the constant changes in the world, allowing them to lead the pack through the years.