An Elegy for GM

There are a lot of things I could write about this month, but the recent news of General Motors' bankruptcy has overshadowed everything else.

To say that nobody knows what will happen next is a bit of an understatement. GM's bankruptcy is the biggest in U.S. history, and the news wires and the internet are buzzing with all sorts of theories and explanations of what the coming weeks and months have in store for the former world's largest automaker.

Here are a few choice tidbits:
• I heard yesterday that GM could be split into two entities: "Good GM," consisting of the profitable divisions--Chevrolet, Buick, Cadillac, GMC--and "Bad GM," consisting of the divisions that nobody wants--Saturn, Hummer, Saab, Opel.
• I heard a radio interview this morning with United Auto Workers president Ron Gettelfinger in which Gettelfinger sounded pleased with the bankruptcy proceedings, saying that the reorganization of GM was a much better option than insolvency, both for his UAW constituency and for America.
• Yesterday, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm wrote a stirring blog on the Huffington Post about how we shouldn't feel sorry for Michigan because the state has lost a million jobs in the past ten years, and stands to lose many more in the coming year.

Instead, she wrote, "Today, the advanced batteries used in electric and hybrid vehicles are made in Asia. Tomorrow, they will be made in Michigan. Today, the wind turbines used in much of America's wind farms are made in Europe. Tomorrow, they will be made in Michigan and in states across America. We have the technology, the workforce, the machining know-how, the universities, the factory capacity, the infrastructure for transporting these products... and we will have federal policies that drive demand for those products researched, developed and produced in America."

• And yesterday I got a letter from Jim Campbell, the general manager of GM Fleet and Commercial Operations, expressing his reassurance that GM's fleet customers have nothing to fear.

In his letter, Campbell wrote: "GM intends to honor 2009 fleet agreements for ordered and out of stock purchases, including applicable incentive payments.

"Our intent is to continue with vehicle production as outlined in previously communicated schedules.

"GM intends to honor its warranty commitments given at the time of purchase to owners of current and future GM products.

"Service for all brands will continue to be available through authorized GM service facilities, with genuine GM parts."

That is reassuring news, and one can only hope that GM will be able to honor those promises. I know they have the intention and the will to honor them; I hope they have the resources, a month from now, and a year from now, to honor them.

I grew up in a Ford family, although one of my great uncles owned the Chevy dealership in Dubuque, Iowa, so there was always a trace of GM in my DNA. Growing up in a small town in southern Wisconsin, September brought two things: a return to school, and shipments of new model year GM cars from the assembly plant in Janesville. The GM transporters rumbled down the same highway that we walked along to go to school, and when they passed by, my brothers and I would crane our necks to see what the new models looked like: New headlights on the El Camino? New grille on the Skylark? New taillights on the Vega? New roofline on the Cutlass? Back then, people traded in every two years, and yearly model changes were the norm, part of the "planned obsolescence" that GM refined to a science (and which has now come back to haunt it).

We didn't know about any of that then. We just liked cars that looked cool, and the excitement of getting a sneak preview of the new years' models a few weeks before they were formally introduced made us forget for a moment that we were about to spend the day at school.

GM cars were way cool then, and I wish they were as cool now, but they haven't been for a long time. Maybe that's part of the problem, I don't know.

For now, I'm hoping that Jim Campbell, Ron Gettelfinger and Governor Granholm haven't misplaced their optimism. Whatever becomes of GM, I have to hope that the things that made it a great company--its skilled, dedicated workforce, its engineering prowess, its modern manufacturing and assembly plants--will someday soon be building something that will make kids stop in their tracks on their way to school and think: "Cool."

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