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The Buick Super was big and bold and beautiful. Note the massive chrome grille. (GM/GM)
The Buick Super was big and bold and beautiful. Note the massive chrome grille. (GM/GM)

Brand Strategy

Can GM recreate its golden age? Add to ...

Harley Earl and Bill Mitchell came to mind as I looked over the remarks made by General Motors chairman and CEO Dan Akerson at the company’s annual meeting last week.

“GM is in the early days of one of the biggest global product offensives in our history. Many of them will be in segments new to GM – and every one of them is designed to compete and win,” Akerson said. “The new Buick Verano – Buick’s third all-new sedan in three years – is one such example.”

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Time will tell if the Verano turns out to be as enduring as the gems Earl’s Styling Section turned out during GM’s Motorama period in the 1950s, in particular. If you know your GM Design history, you’ll know that Earl’s team was a beehive of creativity during this time. The Motorama dream cars included the 1953 Corvette, first seen in January of that year at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. Later in 1953, the production version arrived, of which only 300 were hand-built, all of them white with a red interior.

Or the 1954 Pontiac Bonneville Special. As legend has it, this dream car was inspired by Earl’s visit to the Bonneville Salt Flats. The idea was to give Pontiac an answer to the Corvette in a dream car that conveyed a sense of speed and aerodynamic efficiency. Earl, as Stephen Bayley notes in Harley Earl and the Dream Machine, wanted to give the American public a taste of the innovation at work inside GM, and in particular its emerging styling centre.

The 1950s were, in fact, a period of bursting creativity within GM. This parade of dream cars, from the 1954 Chevrolet Corvette Nomad to the 1954 Oldsmobile Cutlass, from the 1954 Buick Wildcat II to the 1955 Cadillac Eldorado Broughan, from the 1956 Chevrolet Impala, to the 1959 Firebird III … Oh, the list goes on and on.

I imagined the dream cars as I pondered Akerson’s words, most of them focused on the financial health and internal business practices of GM in its post-bankruptcy period. I wondered how deeply he and his team truly embrace the spirit of ingenuity and creativity that marked GM during Harley Earl’s time (1927-1959), and later that of his protégé, Bill Mitchell. Earl invented GM Design and Mitchell carried on his legacy. Together, they were vital in the creation of a GM so loaded with enduring, iconic designs that the company survived and thrived for decades – despite decades of mismanagement leading up to the 2009 bankruptcy filing.

Akerson noted that GM plans to launch new or freshened vehicles covering some 70 per cent of the company’s North American lineup this year and next. I wonder: would Earl approve of the Verano? What about these other 21st-century GM designs? It’s a fair question to ponder here on the eve of the 85th birthday of GM Design – originally called the Art and Color Section in 1927, which later became the Styling Section in 1937. Design was the crucible of creativity in which so many great GM vehicles were formed.

GM’s own Heritage Centre notes that during the 1950s – that post-war period during which time what Tom Brokaw has called “The Greatest Generation” were reshaping the post-war industrial world – “Earl’s Styling Section created the classic Chevrolets of 1955-1957, designed pillarless hardtops, on both coupes (1950 Pontiac Chieftain Catalina) and sedans (Buick Roadmaster, the Oldsmobile Ninety-Eight and Cadillac Sedan de Ville) in 1955, and developed the first true, American sports car in the 1953 Chevrolet Corvette.”

Tomorrow, GM Design blows out 85 candles at a time of massive, wrenching change within the company. Under current global design chief Ed Welburn, who took the job in 2003, GM has created good but not great cars and it’s fair to wonder if there is something more amazing to come.

Is there? Most would agree that the 2013 Malibu, which has gone on sale in the United States and is coming to Canada this fall, is a handsome car, but is it a great design? The 2014 Impala that GM showed in New York at the auto show in the spring? Fabulous interior and, again, handsome, but is it a classic? The just-arriving Cadillac XTS? A classic?

These are fair questions. For their part, Welburn and his global design team argue their best work lies ahead. Tomorrow’s classic cars, he says, are being invented by today’s GM designers.

Welburn himself says, “Every new product we develop has to be a home run; each one has to be a great vehicle.” That’s pressure.

At GM’s annual meeting, Akerson stuck to the business side of the GM story. That’s to be expected. His background is in private equity and the telecommunications industry, and before that he studied at the U.S. Naval Academy. He’s the nuts-and-bolts business guy, the leader who is trying to get GM to function like a streamlined enterprise so that – hopefully – the company can unlock and unleash the genius of its designers and engineers.To that end, Akerson talked about changes in the company’s product development process that will reduce architectures by 50 per cent by 2018. GM’s European business is also a mess and needs fixing through a combination of cost-cutting and revenue generation based on new products. And, being from private equity, he has a laser-like focus on protecting the company with a so-called “fortress” balance sheet.

“I know we can get the job done – and do it well – because the old internally focused, consensus-driven, and overly complicated GM is being reinvented brick by brick,” he said. “We now have clarity of purpose backed by true accountability, and that’s part of a broad cultural change under way at GM.”

Ah, cultural change. GM does not yet appear to be the hotbed of bubbling creativity it was in the 1950s. That seems obvious, in fact. But Akerson has told me his No. 1 priority is to make GM fast, efficient and above all creative. A global force that imagines great cars and then creates them quickly, profitably and enduringly. Much like GM at its peak in the 1950s, when Earl’s designers were at the very top of their game.

At least Akerson talked about products last week, featured them prominently in his remarks. The “sporty” and affordable Chevrolet Spark mini-car coming this summer has, in his words, “bold styling” and features aimed at young, urban buyers. He also talked about the new Cadillac XTS, “our most technologically advanced luxury sedan ever,” along with next year’s ATS, Cadillac’s new compact luxury sedan.

In true naval officer lingo, Akerson said the “mission brief” for the ATS “is to establish a strong Cadillac presence in the largest luxury market segment. The German brands may not see us as a threat, but I think the ATS will get their attention. It has rear-wheel-drive, it’s one of the lightest vehicles in the segment, our 270-horsepower turbo engine has 40 more horsepower than a comparable BMW and the car will get better than 30 mpg on the highway.”

As we look ahead to GM’s future, then, it’s worth recalling where the company came from, its legacy and past greatness, and wonder if something similar lies ahead. GM, after all, was the first automobile manufacturer to single out automotive design. On June 23, 1927, the Executive Committee of General Motors approved the creation of a new department to “study the question of art and colour combinations in General Motors products.” Then GM boss Alfred Sloan hired Harley Earl, a custom coach builder from Hollywood and the creator of the 1927 LaSalle, as its leader.

Welburn is only the sixth design boss in GM’s 104-year history. In true Harley Earl fashion, he says, “Our global team is united around its passion for designing vehicles that make an emotional connection. What was true 85 years ago is still true today: A designer’s role is to create a beautifully executed exterior with great proportions to draw you in, and an interior environment that invites you into a relationship that develops and grows.”

GM’s design department certainly walked the walk under Earl and later Bill Mitchell and perhaps even as late as Chuck Jordan. Will the same be true in the here and now, 85 years after GM formed its design centre? Is it even fair to compare Akerson to the Alfred Sloan of 1927, the chief executive who empowered Harley Earl to invent the world’s first dedicated automotive design centre within a car company?

Probably not. And life isn’t fair. At the very least, from Akerson on down it is fair to expect those within GM to remember what made GM big and great and profitable in its best days. Great design was at the heart of it all.

Don't forget to check out this week's galleries: In pictures: Terrific design blasts from GM's past and In pictures: GM’s design dogs

jcato@globeandmail.com

Follow on Twitter: @catocarguy

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