SCOTT SIMON, Host:
NPR's David Schaper looks back from General Motors's rise to the start of its fall.
DAVID SCHAPER: The Automobile in American Life exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan is laid out as a big timeline, using mint condition original cars and other artifacts to mark major developments in the history of the automobile.
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U: At the turn of the century, automobiles were rarely seen on America's streets. If you didn't want to walk or take a streetcar, you could ride a bicycle...
SCHAPER: Guiding us through the history of General Motors is the museum's curator of transportation, Bob Casey, who shows us two early cars that are really just carriages with motors - a 1903 Oldsmobile and 1903 Cadillac.
SIMON: These are two of the companies that a man named William Durant put together to form General Motors.
SCHAPER: Frustrated company directors forced Durant out. And in 1923, Alfred P. Sloan took over General Motors.
SIMON: Alfred Sloan recognized that the business model that had made Ford Motor Company so successful was no longer going to be successful going forward.
SCHAPER: Sloan saw that customers wanted more style, more power, more comfort, more prestige. And Sloan decided to offer that all within GM.
SIMON: And he took this kind of messy company that Billy Durant had created and he rationalized it. He cut down the number of models and he established a ladder of success.
SCHAPER: By 1929, the Chevrolet became the bestselling car in America, and General Motors never looked back.
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U: (Singing) Oh, you'll soon be at the wheel of a brand new Oldsmobile, where (unintelligible) will be fun to be alive.
SCHAPER: Despite the Depression and war, GM increased its dominance in the 1930s and '40s using catchy radio jingles to tout its latest advances. And GM tapped one of the most popular television celebrities in the 1950s, Dinah Shore, to sing the praises of its cars.
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SIMON: (singing) See the USA in your Chevrolet. America is asking you to call. Drive your Chevrolet through the USA. America's the greatest land of all...
SCHAPER: Henry Ford Museum curator Bob Casey says by the 1950s, GM had more than 50 percent of the U.S. auto market. It was the golden era of the American automobile - the Buick Roadmaster, the '57 Chevy, the '59 Cadillac with the big tailfins, and the 1964 muscle car, the Pontiac GTO.
SIMON: Fast, powerful, fun, sexy. The guys wanted to drive it. The girls wanted to date the guys who drove it.
SCHAPER: But Casey says GM and Ford, and Chrysler too, for that matter, changed very little during these golden years. He points to a chassis hanging from the ceiling that is from a 1940 Oldsmobile, and says it would be nearly identical to one taken off an Oldsmobile from 1975.
SIMON: They established this paradigm and then they didn't move on, because they didn't have lots of competition.
SCHAPER: And when the competition did come, Casey says GM wasn't ready for it.
SIMON: We see a couple of cars here that represent trouble in different ways - a 1949 Volkswagen.
SCHAPER: Though only two Volkswagens were imported in 1949, Casey says by the 1960s the funny-looking Bug from Germany had an enormous following. GM's ill-fated response to the VW was the Corvair.
SIMON: A number of them got into fatal car crashes. And a guy name Ralph Nader wrote a book that featured this car, called the book "Unsafe at Any Speed." And you begin to see a chink in General Motors's armor.
SCHAPER: In the mid-'60s along comes another car.
SIMON: This little blue sedan, boxy little sedan up here, is a Toyota Corona.
SCHAPER: That car and another from what was then Datsun, established Japanese compacts in the American market. And Casey says General Motors did not respond to the new market conditions well.
SIMON: They tried lots of different things but they were never able to do, as Alfred Sloan had done, define a new business model and run with it. And now it looks like through the force of bankruptcy, they're going to come up with a new business model. But it's a sure hard way to do it.
SCHAPER: David Schaper, NPR News.
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