When it became official last week that General Motors would be entering Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, we couldn't help but be a bit nostalgic. So we took a tour of GM's photo archives and came up with this somewhat arbitrary showing of classic automotive designs from the company's heyday.
Talkin' about glory days
GM's salad days were in the middle of the 20th century before the
first oil crisis and the surging presence of Japanese imports on US roadways. We start here with a "market segmentation price ladder" of GM models from 1925: a Cadillac sedan, a Chevrolet touring, a first-year Pontiac coupe, a Buick touring and an Oldsmobile sedan.
Part of the nostalgia has to do with the fact that the 100-year-old company has long been considered an essential part of the American corporate landscape and that its products played an essential part in forming the modern American identity. Indeed in the 1970s Chevrolet had a hit jingle with the refrain
"baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet", which neatly morphed itself into "football, meat pies, kangaroos and Holden cars" down under and "braaivleis, rugby, sunny Skies and Chevrolet" in South Africa.
1927 Cadillac LaSalle Roadster
The 1927 Cadillac LaSalle Roadster meets Charles Lindberg's
Spirit of St Louis aeroplane. The '27 LaSalle, GM says, was the first production vehicle conjured up by a professional designer — in this case, the legendary Harley Earl, whom the company had just brought on board from Hollywood, where he'd been customising cars for the stars.
In an interview on
Public Radio International's The World program, British automotive journalist Giles Chapman had this to say about the significance of GM's design efforts:
"I think you can safely say that General Motors invented car design, because in 1926 they opened up a department called the Art and Colour department, and that was really the first time that they had actually decided to expend some attention on how cars looked as opposed to the design of the car underneath its metal. So that is something they brought to the entire global car industry. And that's what their success was founded on, being absolutely brilliant at that. We think of something like the 1959 Cadillac with those gigantic fins, or the '63 Corvette Sting Ray with the split rear window. They were the result of years and years of trying to create spectacular automobiles."
1935 Chevrolet Suburban
According to GM's
Century of Innovation website, 1926 was also the year that GM became the top seller of automobiles in the US.
But now we jump ahead a few years, to see that some of the older styling still prevailed. This is a 1935 Chevrolet Suburban and what looks to be an advertising-friendly all-American family heading out on a road trip.
Our tour largely sticks to vintage models from the days before computer-aided design tools became the norm. Here we see designers in GM's Pontiac Studio in 1937.
1938 Buick Y Job
Behold the world's first concept car: the 1938 Buick Y Job. The brainchild of Harley Earl — he's the gent behind the wheel — the two-passenger sports convertible had disappearing headlamps and the convertible top automatically hid itself behind the passenger compartment. "It was the first car developed with an eye less on commercial production than on gauging public reaction to new technologies and designs," according to GM.
The 1940 Oldsmobile line featured the Hydra-Matic Drive, the first fully automatic transmission. A GM ad for that Olds proclaims: "No Clutch Pedal! A Free Unshackled Right Hand! World's Simplest, Easiest Way to Drive"
Scale me down Scotty
A clay modeller, circa 1948, sculpts a scale model. At that time, the company was developing and building its new GM Technical Center — the architect for which was the pre-eminent
Eero Saarinen, the designer of St Louis' Gateway Arch — to house its burgeoning styling (formerly Art and Colour) and design teams, along with its research labs and engineering staff. Occupancy of the Technical Center began in 1953.
1951 Buick Le Sabre
Another concept car from GM and Harley Earl was the 1951 Buick Le Sabre, which GM called a "laboratory on wheels". Its technological features included "a dual gasoline and alcohol fuel system and a moisture sensor, which would raise the convertible top if it began raining when the owner was away from the car". On the design side, it borrowed some of its look from the first generation of jet fighters. That's Earl, again, in the driver's seat.
In 1953 GM kicked off its annual Motorama touring auto show at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan. Dressed for a formal evening affair, unlike their more casually clad counterparts today, these women are laying hands on a 1953 Chevrolet Bel Air four-door sedan.
1951 Cadillac El Camino concept
One of the featured cars in the 1954 Motorama was the Cadillac El Camino concept, which set the stage for styling trends in production vehicles later that decade — take, for instance, the rear fins and the fluted side panels. It also had a fibreglass body and a 172kW overhead valve V8 engine. GM would later famously use the El Camino name for a car-based ute from Chevrolet.
1956 Buick Centurion Dream Car
The front seats of the two-door 1956 Buick Centurion Dream Car concept slid back automatically when the doors opened, to allow for easier entry. But the astonishing technological element is this: the vehicle had a rear-mounted television camera that sent images to a TV screen in the dashboard, in place of the rear-view mirror. It's only now, 50 years later, that video cameras and displays have started showing up in any appreciable numbers in production vehicles to aid mirrors and give a view into blind spots. The engine: a 242kW V8.
1956 Oldsmobile Golden Rocket
As the name implies, the 1956 Oldsmobile Golden Rocket concept car was designed with rockets in mind. After all, the
space race was a new and exciting aspect of the Eisenhower years. The Golden Rocket had a 205kW V8 engine. Opening the door of the Golden Rocket caused the seat to rise slightly and swivel outward; the roof panel rose too and featured a tilt steering wheel.
GM Firebird concept cars
The jet fighter and rocket ship styling trend continues with these concept Firebirds from (left to right) 1952, 1956 and 1958.
1957 Chevrolet Suburban 100 Series
Design got decidedly more down-to-Earth with the 1957 Suburban 100 Series production vehicle. Still, as much as its styling suggests a small school bus, it also gives hints of what lies four decades ahead in the era of the SUV. It was SUVs and pick-up trucks that helped fuel GM's financial success just a few years ago.
1957 GMC 100 Series
A forerunner of today's big, buff pick-ups was this rather modest GMC 100 Series truck, also from 1957.
1959 Firebird III concept car
A variation on one of the experimental Firebirds seen a few slides back is this 1959 Firebird III. Seen here captivating a Motorama crowd at New York's
1959 Cadillac Cyclone
The 1959 Cadillac Cyclone concept had a number of futuristic tech elements, including a radar device and, in those dual-nose cones, proximity sensors, all of which would warn the driver of objects in the car's path. The doors slid out and back, just like the side doors on many of today's people movers. That clear plastic canopy top, hinged at the rear, rose automatically when a door opened. You didn't have to open it up to talk to folks outside, though; for that there was an intercom system. Despite its jet fighter styling, under the hood was a thoroughly conventional 242kW V8 engine.
1959 Cadillac Eldorado
Concept cars are all well and good, but you can't run a business on them. For that you need production models like this 1959 Cadillac Eldorado, which, "with those gigantic fins" was one of the cars singled out by automotive journalist
Giles Chapman as a prime example of GM's design prowess.
1960 Chevrolet Corvair
The Chevrolet Corvair came on the scene in the 1960 model year. It was part of a crop of smaller cars from GM around that time, including — in the 1961 model year — the Buick Special, the Oldsmobile F-85 and the Pontiac Tempest. It proved controversial for GM for a number of reasons. According to
Howstuffworks.com: "The problem with Corvair was a radical design that made it too costly for its original economy-car mission and too 'foreign' for its target audience. Had it not opened up an entirely new market — and almost by accident at that — Corvair wouldn't have lasted even half of the 10 years it did hang on."
It didn't help matters at all that the Corvair, with its rear-mounted engine and potentially dodgy suspension, had a prominent role in the evolution of consumer activism, as it kicked off Ralph Nader's 1965 book
. Unsafe at Any Speed
Buck it up, pal
These men are taking measurements on a wood buck, or model, of the 1963 Chevy Impala.
1963 Corvette Sting Ray
The 1963 Corvette Sting Ray is one of GM's classic designs. The Chevrolet Corvette — yet another Harley Earl concoction, at least in its initial forms — had been around since the early 1950s. The model seen here is the completely redesigned Sting Ray, which was notable for, among other things, its split rear window on the coupe.
1967 Pontiac Firebird
We leave you with the 1967 Pontiac Firebird — a production model, unlike the concept Firebirds from the 1950s. Where the GM of 2009 is selling off its relatively recent
Hummer brand to a Chinese company and Saturn to the Penske Automotive Group, it is also planning to simply discontinue the venerable Pontiac brand by the end of 2010.