Remembering GM At Its Zenith
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
GM was, at one time, the biggest corporation on the planet, an iconic giant that wielded political and cultural power.
(Soundbite of song, "See the USA in Your Chevrolet")
Ms. DINAH SHORE (Singer): (Singing) See the USA in your Chevrolet.
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
You might have thought that GM was America. After all, GM cars seemed always to inspire popular songs.
(Soundbite of song, "In My Merry Oldsmobile")
Mr. JEAN GOLDKETTE (Jazz Pianist): (Singing) Come away with me, Lucille, in my merry Oldsmobile.
(Soundbite of song, "Rocket 88")
Mr. JAMES COTTON (Singer): (Singing) Let me reintroduce my new Rocket 88.
(Soundbite of song, "Maybelline")
Mr. CHUCK BERRY (Singer): (Singing) As I was motivating over the hill, I saw Maybelline in a Coupe De Ville.
(Soundbite of song, "Little Deuce Coupe")
THE BEACH BOYS (Rock Band): (Singing) She's my little deuce coupe. You don't know what I got.
(Soundbite of song, "Little G.T.O.")
RONNIE AND THE DAYTONAS (Rock Band): (Singing) Little GTO…
(Soundbite of song, "Dead Man's Curve")
JAN AND DEAN (Rock Band): (Singing) I was cruising in my Stingray late one night.
(Soundbite of song, "American Pie")
Mr. DON McLEAN (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) Drove my Chevy to the levee, but the levee was dry.
(Soundbite of song, "Little Red Corvette")
PRINCE (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) Little red Corvette.
(Soundbite of song, "Pink Cadillac")
Mr. BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN (Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) Honey, I just wonder what you do there in the back in your pink Cadillac, pink Cadillac.
SIEGEL: GM also inspired a popular weekly TV show on CBS.
(Soundbite of song, "Route 66")
SIEGEL: "Route 66" was Kerouac in a Corvette.
NORRIS: Lewis and Clark with sex appeal.
SIEGEL: Beginning in 1960, the show let its two carefree young male stars meander the country in their sports car, but their GM Corvette convertible was the real star.
Dr. LYNN BARTHOLOME (President, Popular Culture in American Culture Association): You felt when you rode in a Corvette that you could do anything and go anywhere.
NORRIS: Dr. Lynn Bartholome is president of the Popular Culture in American Culture Association.
Dr. BARTHOLOME: I wrote a letter to one of the dealerships because I so loved the Corvette, and the salesperson took me for a ride. It was the symbol of youth and freedom.
SIEGEL: At the 1964 World's Fair in New York, GM dominated the show with an update of its attraction at the 1939 World's Fair.
Unidentified Man #1: Welcome to Futurama II. Welcome to a journey into the future.
NORRIS: Futurama told us GM engineering would change our lives for the better. We learned this as we rode a little train and watched a GM future that would triumph over nature.
Unidentified Man #1: …but of reality. A jungle road is built in one continuous operation. First, a searing ray of light, the laser beam, cuts through the trees. Then a giant machine - a factory on wheels - grinds up the stumps and jungle growth. And the roadway bed is paved.
SIEGEL: It was General Motors' versus the rain forests. And we knew who would win.
NORRIS: Though it wasn't long before GM hit a bump in the road. The company introduced a new small Chevy, the Corvair. It was a Corvette with all the cool parts removed.
(Soundbite of Corvair Ad)
Unidentified Man #2: If you're like most people who are interested in the Corvair, you want to know what it can do in action, out on the road.
SIEGEL: Then a young unknown lawyer named Ralph Nader hammered on what he considered design flaws. Here he was in 1972.
Mr. RALPH NADER (Attorney, Consumer Advocate): The Corvair has turned over for virtually every investigator who has explored the handling and stability characteristics of the automobile, and for a good many private citizens who have not.
SIEGEL: And that impression stuck.
NORRIS: Years later, Japan's automakers launched an attack on GM and other U.S. carmakers with smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. And since then, GM has never found its bearings.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.
Correction April 27, 2009
In some broadcasts, we included "Little Deuce Coupe" among the songs inspired by GM cars. In fact, the Beach Boys song is about a 1932 Ford.