Tailfins, V-8s, Corvettes: The wake of an icon

For retiree Chuck Lippmann, 66, of Bergenfield, N.J., it's the 1955 Chevy sedan, a two-door, red-and-white model he has owned for about five years. It reminded him of his youth and was the only brand that he liked.

"Growing up, my father always had GM products," he said. "I just kind of latched onto the Chevy."

In 1979, GM employed 618,000 Americans, more than any other company. It became so ingrained in American culture that its late 1980s advertising boasted that Chevrolet was "The Heartbeat of America."

By then, though, Americans also had become suspect of its quality. GM cars broke down. They rusted. There were stories of workers building cars with Coke bottles in the doors. At the same time, Honda and Toyota put out cars that seemed to hum along forever, almost maintenance free.

GM and the rest of Detroit started neglecting their cars, instead focusing on pickups and sport-utility vehicles with profit margins high enough to cover the ever-growing cost of former workers' pensions and health care.

During the late 1990s, when the economy was booming, GM sold more trucks and SUVs than ever before, and its profit hit a record $6.7 billion in 1997.

Perhaps the demise of GM's storied Oldsmobile brand is indicative of the company's problems.

Oldsmobile was among the pioneers in using chrome-plated trim and the mass production of automatic transmissions. It gave drivers the Eighty Eight series, the front-wheel-drive Toronado and the Cutlass.

The brand grew steadily over the years, and in 1977 it became the first GM division outside Chevrolet to sell more than 1 million cars. Its high point was 1985, when it built 1,168,982 vehicles.

As baby boomers aged, GM got older, too. Lacking entry-level small cars that would attract younger buyers, the average age of the company's customer skyrocketed. In 2003, the average Oldsmobile owner was 50 years old. GM tried to counter the stereotype with an ad campaign that this was "not your father's Oldsmobile."

It didn't work. Sales began to fall and GM was unable to make a profit with the aging brand. GM ended Oldsmobile production with the 2004 model year.

GM still hasn't shed the problem of aging buyers, and marketing campaigns and new products have done little to change that. Last year, the average buyer of a Buick sedan was 66.

By the turn of the millennium, GM had grown too large, with too many employees, factories, brands and models. Like crosstown rival Chrysler, which is already reorganizing under bankruptcy protection, GM had a loyal truck following, but the image of its cars had been tarnished.

Even in years where Americans bought more than 16 million vehicles, the companies both lost billions.

When gas prices crept up to $4 per gallon, GM scrambled to roll out more fuel-efficient cars, but it didn't shift quickly enough. Add the wide-reaching recession, and U.S. auto sales fell by nearly half. GM and Chrysler collapsed under the tremendous weight of their fixed costs.

GM's U.S. employment amounted to just 88,000 earlier this year, and that number is likely to shrink even more as the company continues to reshape itself.

Herb Chambers, who has sold GM and other vehicles in New England for a quarter century, said the company certainly has to take much of the blame. He says GM underestimated the potential of Japanese automakers when they began to grab U.S. market share in the 1970s and '80s with smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles.

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