General Motors

How General Motors changed the automobile industry in the 1920s.

When people think about the making of the auto industry and what has made it survive and even thrive the first thing that comes to mind is Henry Ford and the Model T. It is thought that Ford created the assembly line. This is not true, the credit actually goes to Ransom Eli Olds. Now don’t get me wrong Ford did some great things in the auto industry. Such as, adding automation to the assembly line and lowering the cost of the Model T from a range of $600-$7500 to $265. However with this price drop came a few drawbacks. First, the only color available was black (simply because it dried faster). Second, the Model T was completely square with no curves or anything else to make it visually appealing (strictly a cost saving measure). Oh and did I mention that the only vehicle available from Ford for seventeen years straight was the Model T (he only began making the Model A because of the persistence from his son from the falling sales). What happens when a family with a rising income wishes to replace their car for a newer and better model and yet all that is available from Ford is the same Model T they purchased seventeen years ago? This is where General Motors stepped in and saved and expanded the automobile industry.


Alfred Sloan

After General Motors was behind Ford in sales for what seemed like an eternity Pierre DuPont decided to change things up in 1920 by appointing Alfred Sloan to the job of overcoming Ford’s sales figures. Sloan realized that price was simply not an option. Ford had driven the price of the Model T down so far that Sloan knew the only thing he could do was make a better quality car.

Work began on a copper cooled engine to be released with the 1923 Chevrolet. However, due totechnical problems the engine was delayed and was not ready in time for the release of the 1923 Chevrolet. So, instead of just throwing in the towel and waiting until next year Sloan made the call to release the 1923 Chevrolet with the same technology that it had kept for the past nine years (remember Ford had released the same exact car for seventeen years). However, one thing would be different, the latest style body. We’re talking the same car with the looks of a luxury car, lower roof, higher hood, and rounded lines. Sales boomed and the focus of the automobile industry changed forever. This proved it was not the latest and greatest technology under the hood consumers were looking for. They wanted something shiny and new to show off.

Another area where General Motors exceeded was being able to build cars for different markets. The different brands included Chevrolet, Buick, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, and Cadillac. Sloan lowered the cost of producing all these brands by sharing parts between the brands. A Buick and a Pontiac could have the same transmission but the finished product would look completely different from each other.  All the models under all the brands only varied by three different shells which came in different sizes. They then were made aesthetically different by superficial parts like taillights and fenders. Remember how if you bought a Ford your only color choice was black? General Motors decided this wasn’t good enough and offered a spectrum of colors. Since new is always better according to the consumer General Moors released a new model every year. Before this a new car every year was unheard of. Although the shell and mechanics stayed the same sometimes for multiple years the exterior was changed to have a “new” appearance.

Check out the YouTube video to see the assortment of vehicles offered by General Motors.

Finally in 1927 General Motors surpassed Ford in sales. In fact in the 1920s a few jokes circulated about the Model T. “Why is a Model T like a mistress? Because you hate to be seen on the streets with one.” Another joke about the Model T’s construction was about a driver not needing a speedometer because he already knew his speed.  “When my Ford is running five miles per hour, the fender rattles; twelve miles an hour, my teeth rattle; and fifteen miles an hour, the transmission drops out.” 

Harley Earl

Harley Earl

Driven by the fact that looks sell more than whats under the hood General Motors brought in Harley Earl in 1927 to make an inexpensive Cadillac, the La Salle, look like a luxury Cadillac. Earl built expensive looking cars for the movies in Hollywood and Sloan knew he would be the perfect guy for the job. The La Salle was an obvious success and at the time “was the most beautiful car ever built”. Earl stated, “I try to design a car so that every time you get in it, it’s a relief–you have a little vacation for awhile”.

General Motors was founded on September 16, 1908 originally only holding Buick. Now 105 years later holding Buick, Chevrolet, Cadillac, and GMC. General Motors led vehicle sales for 77 consecutive years, from 1931 through 2007, longer than any other automaker in history. This story of success is made possible by management standing up and stepping out of the box to save an industry that was only going downhill. They knew what consumers were looking for and changed the automobile industries way of thinking in order to give them what they wanted and even what they only dreamed of.


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