By Jim Mateja, Special to Tribune Newspapers
November 4, 2011
While financial losses nearly forced General Motors to disappear a few years ago, one of its building blocks, Chevrolet, celebrated its 100th birthday on Nov. 3.
But expect to sip coffee rather than champagne. The one-time giant is still recovering from surgery that removed several assembly plants, thousands of workers, numerous vehicles, and three entire divisions — Oldsmobile, Pontiac and Saturn — to regain its health.
"GM benefited by walking away from debt by filing for bankruptcy, so the healing has begun," said Joe Phillippi, principal of automotive consulting firm AutoTrends, "but Chevy needs to succeed in global markets where it hasn't been before as well as in the U.S., where sales are up but still aren't strong."
Since its inception, Chevrolet has been known for offering technology and features typically found only in more expensive cars, such as the electric starter and electric headlamps. Its role was to get people into the GM family where they'd then move them up to other makes as age and income rose.
Without Pontiac, Olds or Saturn, it's role has changed — to move buyers into low-priced Chevrolet products and then into higher-priced Chevrolet products, said Art Spinella, general manager of CNW Marketing, a company that specializes in why consumers buy the vehicles they do.
People behind the innovations
While known for its vehicles, Chevy boasts noteworthy people, too. Ed Cole, chief engineer from 1952-1956, not only created the small-block V-8 in 1955 that gave the division its performance DNA, he became Chevy general manager in 1956 and president of GM in 1967.
While Cole may be Chevrolet's most famous alum, former general manager John Z. DeLorean may be its most infamous. Once fast-tracked to the top executive suite, DeLorean refused to adopt GM's straight-laced, conservative style and was ousted. So, he set out to market his own gull wing sports car. Though acquitted after a nasty sting episode in which he was charged with allegedly attempting to finance car production through a drug deal, DeLorean faded from sight. The car lived on and might be best known as the flying star in the 1985 "Back to the Future" movie.
Historically, Chevrolet has been a sales leader. For decades the auto industry was dominated by domestics and Chevrolet car sales were tops, outselling closest rival Ford, though Ford held the distinction of outselling Chevrolet in trucks. In the '70s, the full-size Impala/Caprice lead the industry in sales before fuel economy concerns sent consumers rushing for smaller models where imports dominated. In 1984 and again in 1985, the new subcompact Chevy Cavalier retook the industry sales lead. As gas prices eased, imports started adding midsize sedans and won back the sales lead as the Toyota Camry and Honda Accord alternated in the top spot throughout the '90s.
Clever advertising themes over the years helped attract buyers, dating back to the "See the USA in a Chevrolet" tune introduced in 1948. It was followed by arguably the most memorable slogan in automotive history — "baseball, hotdogs, apple pie and Chevrolet" in the '70s, then "Heartbeat of America" in the '80s, and "Like a Rock" in the '90s.
By comparison, the current "Chevy runs deep" slogan is like an anesthetic "and does little to give Chevy a new image they've been struggling for," said Aaron Bragman, senior analyst with IHS Automotive in Northfield, Mich.
Chevrolet, which sells about 3.5 million vehicles in 130 countries each year, has created many icons over the years, such as the fiberglass-body Corvette sports car and its noted ZR-1 King of the Hill version; the '57 Bel Air with its eye-catching tail fins; the '67 Camaro sport coupe, the fire-breathing 1962 Impala 409 named after its V-8's cubic-inch displacement and immortalized in song by the Beach Boys "she's real fine, my 409." Can't forget the '59 El Camino car/pickup or the truck-based Suburban, forerunner of the SUV, which first appeared in 1936 to substitute for the station wagon and has quietly become the longest-lived, continuous production automotive nameplate in the U.S.
Of course, not every offering has been a success, like the rear- engine Corvair that skyrocketed Ralph Nader to national consumer advocate prominence when he insisted it was unsafe at any speed. And the subcompact Vega in the early '70s was supposed to make motorists forget the Toyota Corolla even existed. But engine overheating and body cancer led to its demise, and prompted critics to chide Vega's R.I.P. meant rust in peace.
The road ahead
"Not too long ago Chevy's quality missed, design missed, fit and finish were terrible, and there weren't enough right new models," said Joe Phillippi, principal of AutoTrends, an automotive consulting firm. "Then along came (former GM vice chairman) Bob Lutz, who made the needed changes and refinements and the brand won over converts with terrific cars like Malibu, Volt and Sonic."
Lutz not only convinced a GM board focused on saving nickels and dimes that investing in design and stylish interiors were mandatory to attract buyers, but that the electrification of the auto was "inevitable." He got them to greenlight creation of the Volt plug-in electric that represented a step ahead of Toyota's Prius hybrids and got GM and Chevrolet recognized as technological innovators by consumers.
The question now is: will Chevy celebrate a 200th birthday someday, a fate neither Plymouth nor Mercury will ever enjoy?
"If smart, it should," said Dave Cole, 74, son of the late Ed Cole and chairman emeritus of the Center for Automotive Research in Dearborn, Mich. "The vehicles, the engines, and the fuel are in question, but whether Chevy builds cars or robo pods with four wheels or two it will build low-cost transportation for the masses in the second 100 years just like it did in the first 100 years."
Louis Chevrolet and William C. Durant partnered to create Chevrolet on Nov. 3, 1911. Durant had founded General Motors in 1908. Chevrolet, an engineer and racer who set an open car land speed record of 111 mph in 1905, raced for Durant's Buick team in 1909.
Their first Chevrolet, the Series C Classic Six, was large, powered by a 4.9-liter, 40-horsepower, six cylinder with a top speed of 65 mph, and sold for $2,150 — equal to about $50,000 today.
Chevrolet favored big, powerful cars; Durant liked smaller, affordable ones like the Little, Model L and H, which became immediate succcesses catering to low-cost, entry-level buyers. The value-minded theme prevailed and in 1913 Chevrolet returned to racing while Durant bought him out, and in 1918 merged Chevy into GM.
Durant lost control of GM and went bankrupt by 1936. Chevrolet ended up a mechanic at a Chevrolet factory in Detroit.
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