What was General Motors’ biggest missed opportunity?

Plant workers celebrate the 1000th EV1 produced, a 1999 model. GM

While we normally stray away from asking questions about a single brand here at According to You, this time we couldn’t resist. Because, at least when it comes to automakers, General Motors has a deep and diverse history from which to conjure up countless questions.

This week, let’s all ponder this one:

What was General Motors’ biggest missed opportunity?

My answer is a bit more recent: I think the General Motors EV1 was ahead of its time. It had a radical teardrop design and its improving performance over time (i.e. improved nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) batteries in 1999) was getting people excited about the idea of electric vehicles. The EV1 stood on its own as a functional machine, even without a larger-than-life CEO or sky-high stock valuation to lift it.

saturn t-shirts close
Chris Sundquist

As a halo car, the EV1 increased the excitement around other GM brands. Well, mostly the Saturn brand, as they were tasked with selling the EV1 in the first place. Saturn buyers were already rabidly loyal, and not the same slice of American apple pie that gravitated to trucks, performance cars, or Cadillacs. Even if these cars aren’t up your alley, the EV1 possessed the best elements of classic GM: engineering potency on par with a 1955 Chevy, obsessive styling like that of the 1967 Eldorado, and marketing prowess to open doors the way Alfred Sloan always intended.

Simply put, the EV1 was a magnet for would-be buyers who would have likely remained loyal to their cars for longer than the average customer. The loyalty would not be limited to the EV1’s market of big cities in Arizona and California, either. Places like Dallas, Atlanta, New York, and Boston (plus hundreds of places with thriving Saturn dealerships) had both the well-heeled, multi-car families and the charging support to make the EV1 a success.

Considering all the money spent to make small-time gasoline players like the Pontiac Fiero, the Cadillac Allanté, the Pontiac Solstice/Saturn Sky twins, and the Buick Reatta, it’s possible that GM put too many of its eggs in the wrong baskets. And perhaps they crushed one of them a little too prematurely.

There’s a reason why hindsight has 20/20 vision, but just imagine a world where GM only hedged their bets on trucks/SUVs with the Corvette and the EV1? As our own Don Sherman said back in 2020:

“The EV1 is both the first modern electric car and the seed that grew into Tesla. Disgusted by GM’s crushing directive, Martin Eberhard and Marc Tarpenning founded Tesla Motors in July 2003.”

The EV1 is much like kale. Sure, it’s good for you, but it ain’t so great for me. So I don’t buy kale at the grocery store, but I get why others do. Therefore, kudos to the grocery store for stocking it in the produce section. McDonald’s once tried selling Kale and really dropped the ball. Maybe McDonald’s and GM have a lot in common?

But enough about kale, let’s bring it back to cars. What do you think General Motors’ biggest missed opportunity was?

Let us know in the comments section below. 

Chelsea Sexton hugs Paul Scott during a vigil held outside of the GM Training Center on Riverside Dr. in Burbank, protesting GM’s plans to crush around 70 EV1 electric vehicles that are currently located in parking lot at the Training Center. Sexton and Scott are 2 of the organizers for the vigil that started back on February 16 and has been held every day since, 24 hours a day. Los Angeles Times via Getty Imag
Read next Up next: A half century ago, Bendix tested autonomous EVs right where automakers test them today


    Key point is that GM brains birthed Tesla tech, Musk is just the money and hype (and oh so good at it).

    Saturn was a missed opportunity –launching a new brand, “new kind of car company” when you already had a too-full slate of brands. Plus they bailed on the concept and later Saturns weren’t the “different” that got people into that. In hindsight that money spent marketing the Olds Aurora and Intrigue, offering more diverse packages on them (a Cutlass…) probably would have cost less and made more –and maybe we’d still have Olds around today.

    Not mid-cycle refreshing one of the last few generations of Camaros into a Firebird and all the special editions that come with it is just letting money walk away.

    Biggest lost opportunity for either Ford or GM is not buying Jeep the various times they coulda/shoulda…

    Buying larger stakes in the Japanese, etc. carmakers as they emerged into the market would have been smart too, but that goes for anyone.

    The biggest mistake that GM (Ford and Chrysler for that matter have made) is to not tell the current Governor of Californa and any other state, that they have no plans to meet his, after he is long gone, zero emissions requirement. And if he wants California highways in 2035 to look like Cuba circa 1980 then so be it. That is, someone making hundreds of millions a year in the C-Suites of GM and others needs to call these state bluffs.

    What’s good for GM is good for the country, right? Maybe if they’d engineered a full-sized pickup to get 50mpg instead of engineering a heavy duty diesel pickup to make 1000 lb-ft of torque or a Corvette to have 600hp, California’s laws never would have even come into play.

    What makes you say that? They never even tried. All they had to do was invest in mpg- money AND their best engineers- instead of power.

    The instrument has yet to be invented that can measure my indifference to your comment. Corporations have become the lap dogs of the tail that wags the dog. Sorry, a perfect example of the sad state of things just happened here, I was “informed” that I responded to quickly, so I guess I get a “time out”.

    The biggest GM mistake is happening right now. GM should fire Mary Barra before she destroys the company. Mark Reuss is guy to run GM. Put a real car guy in charge and maybe he will make even boring EVs desirable. Fire Barra because of her policies which have nothing to do with gender which I wouldn’t normally mention except to get save a bunch of negative accusation posts.

    Not making the Allante RWD was a big miss in striking a blow in the sport luxury market – but I still love mine

    As far as the EV1… there were no charging stations, there were no mechanics to work on them. I knew an electric fork lift mechanic that knew more about the EV1 and its motor controller than any car mechanic. The oil lobby was still too big, and global warming was still an obscure left wing whack job conspiracy theory to the handful of people who even knew what it was. Maybe the flash could have been a little longer, but I doubt if it would have ever been more than a flash in the pan. The fact that the project got cut when it did is probably a plus, allowing it to be the good idea that could have been instead of being the monument to everything that is wrong with the electric car

    Good points. I think Tesla overcame those hurdles with their own charging network and their fantastic hype machine CEO on Twitter.

    I’ve never even seen a Tesla, much less a Tesla charging station. Melon Musk is on his way to destroying the battery-powered car market just as much as GM did.

    Yeah, Rudy’s has Tesla Charging Stations. I live in El Paso, not a very Tech Town at all and there’s pretty many Charging Stations. Also I drove an EV1 in Tucson years ago, it was surprisingly Fast. Elon should have kept building the Roadster!

    The previous suggestions are spot on, but there is room for a slightly less obvious disappointment as well.

    Dropping the Hummer idea completely and never coming back with a mid-size, off road SUV immediately after the turn around. The Hummer crowd is remarkably loyal and dedicated. The H3 adventure package put some real pressure on Jeep and the V8 Alphas were and maybe still are impressive. The H3T on the other hand was simply ahead of its time.

    They were not without flaws (too small front differential and stuck using T Bar springs), but offered a very unique look, highly capable performance, and gas mileage that really was no different than a JK, especially when 33 inch tires or larger were in the mix for the Jeep.

    The exploding Jeep market and even the sustained sales of the FJ showed the possibility. I am frankly amazed that it took Ford so long to get the Bronco out the door.

    The new Bronco is not my cup of tea or shot of whiskey, but it seems to have all the right stuff to be a long term winner as long as the reliability is consistently improved.

    Hummer never should have been a brand. It should have been part of GMC. That has been corrected today. Lutz said it was one of his greatest errors.

    The missed opportunities happened much earlier than we realize. In the early 1960s, the connection between the “car guys” and “tech guys” promoted innovation and a product stream that dominated the market. The increasing control of the financial side of the company, strangled both, often forcing key innovators out of the company or burying them, leading to ever more control by the bean counters and the eventual collapse of the company. Divisions lost the incentive to innovate because they were marketing fronts only. Labor relations deteriorated because when money is the only thing that matters, it’s where all the attention goes on all fronts. The more cost focused the company became, the more innovation became buried and that led to losing more market share….and money. The diversification into EDS, Hughes, was a typical distraction for companies that lose their way in their primary arena.

    Let’s talk mini vans. Trying to peddle the Chevy Astro van, followed by the “Dustbusters” from Pontiac, Olds and Chevrolet was a disaster. Talk about blowing it in the hottest segment in the mid-80’s throughout the 90’s.

    Further attempts were nothing more than copies of the Chrysler mini vans, albeit three years late to market

    Ahead of their time? You think? No charging infrastructure, lousy battery technology, utility of a novelty, not to mention costs. Yep, at least 30 years ahead of their time, and that’s not a good thing. And the original name of the EV1? The “Impact”. Perhaps GM should sell the name to Tesla.

    I do not know if they would be considered the biggest missed opportunity or not, but I consider the second generation Corvair and the 1988 Pontiac Fiero as innovative and leading edge products in their time. As an automotive engineer, they are the only two GM products that I considered for my automotive collection.

    There are several other GM products that stand out for various reasons, such as the Corvette C8, but they are beyond the financial reach for the collection and not desirable to me for various reasons.

    Well (in my opinion, hind-site armchair warrior here), Saturn was a mistake, Fiero under-powered was a mistake, simply put like government, a disconnect with your constituents (customers) instead decision making by committee. Lastly, I DO want to point out one “Bright Spot” for me, that is NOT making the Camaro (back in the 80’s) a front wheel drive committee “Comrade approved” P.O.S. I would like to hammer on Cadillac as they were destroyed the same way, but my taste is different from most about “personal luxury cars”. Daydream – I see a black 1967 Cadillac Eldo, magnificent!

    I never understood why GM spent the money to start another “budget brand” in Saturn when they already had Chevy. Just use the money to make Chevy econoboxes better.

    The Fiero you have to put into context of the failed culture inside GM that led to GM miss managing their divisions and letting them compete vs working together.

    The lowly, lovely Metro. I bought my Metro nearly 30 years ago and got 45+ MPG. Nothing available comes close today. What happened ?????

    People not wanting to drive tin cans stapled to skateboards, I’d imagine. Even today’s povvo-spec cars come with more features and creature comforts than Metros did all those years ago….

    With GM, it always seemed to be about the number crunchers. I can understand about 2008-2009 era with bankruptcy at the door. But, if the GM powers really were into cars, they would’ve found a way to continue with Camaro way back then and also Fiero. Solstice and Sky were probably a tough sell at the time. Still would’ve been great to continue those two.

    I think DeLorean discovered what happens when you go the other extreme and cut the number crunchers and marketers out of the equation. They may have too much control sometimes… but they are there for a reason

    It is a partnership that is a must. If engineers go unrestrained they will kill a company but also if you restrain them too much you will kill the product that will kill the company.

    Bob Lutz addressed this in his Bean Counter book.

    John did what was needed at Pontiac by pushing new tech but the GM establishment and culture was very damaged and Chevy biased.,

    The major issue at GM was this. The management at GM had very distinct models under the Sloan program. Customers would move up as they became more affluent.

    This all fell apart when more models and prices were added to each division. At one time you bought a Chevy but you generally picked the body style. Then it became you picked the model Chevy and then the body style of that model and the range of models grew.

    The real issue was that GM did not manage these divisions to compliment each other and let them compete with each other. This did a lot of damage and it made a lot of problems internally.

    Case in Point John Shinnella the designer said Chevy sold more cars do Chevy got more say over product than Pontiac. The heads never understood what they could have done with Pontiac and after John went to Chevy they were lost and it was only the engineers he left that kept them afloat and most of the successes were cars that broke rules just as John did.

    The Pontiac cars that broke rules were all measured and most became successes and made money but they rubbed Chevy wrong.

    Johns move to Chevy was treated as a promotion but he was set up to fail. He was not part of the old school and he was well hated by many. I knew who he was as a kid as a Great Uncle was a GM engineer that hated him.

    So this declined culture continued. Lutz when looking at the future 08 Malibu asked why they could not get panel gaps as tight as a Hyundai the metal shop manager said they could. Lutz said then why is it not being done. The manager said because we were not told to do it and were not allowed to ask. So for less than $300K the panel gaps on the 08 Malibu were the best in class. Lutz told his people don’t ask just fix what needs fixed.

    The Impala was coming out and was over budget. It had bright trim around the windows. The designer told Lutz it has to be removed to meet the budget. (they got bonuses for meeting budgets). Lutz asked him did it look better with than with out. The designer said with. Lutz said would you rather be a little over budget with a car that will sell better for a little more than save a few dollars and fail in sales.

    This culture was changed by Lutz and is being continued to change by Mark and Mary. But yet the old way still stick up now and then.

    The trouble is we the public see the problems as product but the truth is the problems are the cultures and rules that led to these cars as failure.

    The Fiero died because the Corvette team feared with the decline in C4 sales they would not get the C5 if the Fiero took more sales away. GM sided with Chevy.

    Look at Pontiac.

    The GTO broke the engine size rule.

    The 455 SD broke the rules on engines size.

    The Fiero was canceled several times and hidden at Entech an outside firm to hide it and then they lied about it being an economy car. They took many risk to get the car built and it hurt them in the end. But the goal was to save Pontiac that was set to die. Olds got the bullet as the Grand Am sales saved Pontiac.

    There were a number of cases where cars Pontiac designed and brought to market broke rules.

    The Trans Am Bird decal. It was squashed by Bill Mitchell. John Shinnella too the 455 SD show car and painted it the colors of the John Player Special Norton Motorcycle that was Mitchell’s favorite and suddenly Bill though the car had merit.

    There are more crazy storied on how many Pontiac models came to be and how they were hidden and lied about to just get them build.

    The Fiero was built to fit a small block Chevy V8. That is why the conversion is so easy. Pontiac built one but it was spotted at Mesa testing and ordered crushed.

    Pontiac originated the adjustable rocker arms. But Chevy got the credit. All the Pontiac guys yet today put in screw in studs because they can be easily fitted.

    Imagine if they had advanced Pontiac with DeLorean’s ideas and spread it to the rest of GM over time. GM would have been so much at the lead vs following the rest.

    Then just to get the divisions to work together and make the models compliment and not compete. Imagine if the Fiero was let to be the non V8 sports car been groomed as a feeder to the Corvette platform. They could have even shared tech as Pontiac was working on a all aluminum space frame for the Fiero back in 88. They built 3 of them.

    Not advancing the Corvair and Fiero. Both were so close yet so far from the promise they had. And I owned one of each.

    You have to consider the Corvair was very expensive to build vs a cheaper V8 Camaro.
    Also emissions killed air cooled.

    The Fiero was killed by the Corvette people they feared sales being lost to a more powerful Fiero that was coming.

    GM’s biggest missed opportunity has always been playing it safe. You want a company that commits to innovation? Go to Ford. Between company-wide racing bans, V8 tech that hasn’t really changed since 1955 (new C8 flat-plane DOHC V8 notwithstanding), timid rollout and commitment to EVs, and half-hearted development of truly interesting and innovative cars, risk is something to which GM seems chronically averse.

    The careful EV roll out is the correct thing as you only get one chance to get it right.

    Fords rush on the lightening and Mach E are a big problem now and moving forward. Trucks acting fire in plant is not hood PR.

    One old, one really old.

    Old: second series Corvair. Exquisite design, fully independent rear suspension (not swing axle–take that Ralph Nader!) and the worst of the oil leaks/popped fan belts of the earlier cars cured. And available with a turbo, like the first series cars. Instead of touting all the improvements–both appearance-wise and mechanically–GM folded under Nader’s bad publicity and slunk away.

    Really old: 1922 Copper-cooled Chevrolet. Rapidly discontinued and recalled (the only GM car ever to have a 100% recall) due to uneven cooling caused by poor cooling fan design–front cylinders ran cool, rear cylinders ran hot. In 1921, a Dayton inventor showed the GM folks his air cooled engine design (SOHC, sodium cooled valves) that used a squirrel cage blower and calibrated ducting that provided even cooling front to back. GM didn’t listen as they already had Boss Kettering’s design–which just had to be the right answer. History disproved that. Had Paul’s alternative design been adopted, air cooling might have come to GM 38 years sooner…

    The Mustang killed the Corvair not Ralph. A Camaro 327 was cheaper and easier to sell.

    The Corvair was not a cheap car to build do to the drive line and engine. It almost needed to be,ore a higher priced sport car vs econo sedan.

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