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
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    “…imagine a world where GM only hedged their bets on trucks/SUVs with the Corvette and the EV1?”

    Haven’t MOST manufacturers gone over to making mostly SUVs & trucks?
    Certainly we Americans have, along with our insatiable consumption of fossil fuels.
    What’s been Ford’s best-selling vehicle for some years?

    Right, but they coulda ALSO added EVs to cater to the Tesla market. And it coulda been a global thing. Buicks do well in China, so do Teslas…imaging both of them combined!

    You must remember the EV1 was more test car vs production. They leased them as a test vs selling as they would have cost way too much.

    The fact is GM is doing what you state now as it has taken this long to get the battery cost to where it is feasible.

    Also recall Tesla sold a lot of cars but made little money.

    Buick is now going EV in China. So is Cadillac and Chevy.

    I’ll add the “designed by committee” and sacrificed on the altar of the bean cutter’s Vega. A chance to make inroads against the import market squandered due to the refusal to use proven tech because of the “NIH” (Not Invented Here) syndrome. Foisting off dicey new tech , inadequate cooling, and no rust protection, which soured the consumer on what was a stylish small car that woulda/coulda/shoulda been a champion in the market.

    What’s going on with the passenger side rear glass? Poor man’s air conditioning?

    BTW, as a multi Corvair owner (2 Corsas and 2 vans), I am qualified to say that when the car buying public sees near new cars with oily rear ends a certain stigma is generated. Viton push rod tube seals were available but GM went with cheaper neoprene rings instead. Bad decision. Also, and perhaps even more important from a legacy and lawsuit standpoint, was their decision to ignore the benefits of the supplementary transverse rear spring which GM finally adopted and made standard for 1964 just one year before the complete rear end redesign.

    Alot of mis-steps
    Dropping the perfected Fiero in its first good year
    Dropping the Camaro/Firebird in favor of the Pontiac Aztec and Buick Rendezvous
    Using Saturn to promote Opels when the plastic bodies disappear
    After dropping Olds and Pontiac, not marketing specialty models (Firebird, GTO, Toronado/Riviera, Sky) under the GMC umbrella
    And most recently, the attempt to replace the V8 for a Turbo 4/6 in full size 1500 pickup trucks (RAM % of market is increasing)

    I agree with most of the opinions here, but I really think that they missed an opportunity by not importing the Australian line of Holdens to sell here as Holdens. They already owned the factory, the cars were good
    and I believe with proper marketing the line would have been successful, selling more cars & possibly saving the Holden brand from extinction, as well. Even when they did bring in the G8 & the SS, they never really marketed them properly. Holden also had smaller, less expensive “civilian” quality cars as well that would have created a lot of interest. Also, they should have kept Pontiac around a bit longer, as the G6 series were quite successful. To quote a good friend who happens to be a car dealer with several franchises (including Pontiac), : that’s GM for ya’, they finally get it right and then discontinue it!! And yes the “minivans” were a blunder, but Pontiac should have never sold them in the first place!

    The trouble was by the time they got to it the Holden line was dying down under. In fact GM held out longer than Chrysler and Ford.

    Here is the cold hard truth on the EV1 was only a test car and really was not priced or ready for the market..

    Many see and assume it was a Tesla years before a a Tesla. But this was the most basic car with limited range and was only a stepping stone on the way to here GM was going.

    To be honest for the average driver this car would have only driven more away than convert buyers.

    Think of it like the Chrysler Turbine cars of the 60’s.

    Saturn was just a total mistake that anything done there could have been done at any GM brand.

    The most major missed opportunity was to let John Delorean and his engineers make Pontiac into the brand they really wanted.

    Pontiac was doing SOHC, DOHC, Fuel Injection, Rear Disc Brakes, Radial tires, Composite Head Lamps, superchargers, aluminum wheels, electronic ignitions, independent suspensions and that was all pre 1969 and killed by GM.

    They had suspension and engine projects by Herb Adams in the 70’s that could have really changed the division. The 455 SD was great and the project of a smaller and more powerful V8 could have changed the performance market.

    The Fiero if built and funded as a true sports car could have complimented the Corvette if done correctly.

    Pontiac was an engineers division and the things they accomplished were often due to broken rules by rebellious engineers and often they were punished vs rewarded.

    Pontiac was in the 60’s looking at thinks that did not arrive till 10 years later.

    After the Fiero Pontiac just became a styling exercise based on a GM platform with few highlights outside the Turbo 3.8 pace car and the Solstice.

    GM may have made a number of mistakes but do not mistake the EV1 as anything more than experiment on the path to the future.

    I Still wonder what the “”Real”” story about EV1 was–i mean–Right from the beginning GM refused to actually Sell them & refused to let folks buy out their leases– I don’t think that’s ever happened with any other car in history-

    GM made it clear from the start it’s as more an experiment. These cars cost at the time about $70,000 plus each to build. To keep them on the road long term would have cost a ton of money for GM to stock parts on a car they were never going to make money on.

    GM was hemorrhaging money and it made no sense to sell or leave them out only to decline in the public eye.

    They were for PR to. Show GM was working on the future in hope to entice investors.

    The tech gathered and used was carried forward and used in the Volt once better batteries were available as well computers and motors.

    Like I stated this was GMs version of the Chrysler Turbine cars of the 60’s.

    I was lucky enough to ride in one of these it was cool for a prototype but it was not exactly a great car. This was just a stepping stone to the future.

    If GM had sold these before their time it would have ended like they8_6_4 Cadillac.

    Too many have never seen one let alone Todd in one and these were not the kind of car Michael Moore made it out to be. He just has a grudge with GM and put out a very miss leading movie on this car.

    People need to learn and accept what these cars really were and stop believing the fable. GM was clear these we’re not cars ready for mass production and sale.

    Besides back then America was not ready for these cars yet either. Even Tesla lost money in this era as they still did for years following.

    The truth is GM made it clear about the EV1 and how it was nothing but a prototype and the cost of the car was more than it could be sold for so it was leased for a limited time to show case their tech and test it. This was nothing but like the Chrysler Turbine cars of the 60’s.

    To sell and stock the parts would have cost so much for the customer and GM was not going to make any money on it. What they did learn was applied to the Volt and the systems they used today.

    Too many believe the Michael Moore movie and never learned the truth.

    I rode in one years ago and it was not a car that could be sold for the $70K they had invested in each one.

    We here want to pin the mistakes on the models but the truth at GM is the mistakes were made internally in culture of how they operated.

    The Sloan culture as good as each division had mostly one main model and variations of that model.

    As time rolled on the divisions got more models and more variations of each model. This lead to over laps and competition of the divisions and often mismanagement of these divisions.

    Then when GM rolled into the Corporates Platform era they began to lose money and make cars that really became just styling exercises and not specific models.

    The other issues were like in 07 Lutz looked at the 08 Malibu that was coming and asked the metal shop manager why the panel gaps could not be as good as a Hyundai. He as told they could do it but were never told to do it nor were permitted to ask. Lutz said fix it. A month later and $300K later they has world class gaps on the new Malibu. Failed Culture here.

    The Divisions were always fighting each other. Chevy got the lead as it was stated they sold more cars so they got more say.

    Pontiac has many success over the years but nearly every one of them were due to breaking rules and lying to the corporation.

    The GTO broke the engine size rule. The 455 SD more broken rules. The Fiero was canceled and hidden till they could get it approved.

    The now famed Trans AM Hood Decal was rejected by Bill Mitchell. So John Shinnella took the 455 SD Trans Am prototype and painted it black with Gold stripes just as Bill’s favorite bike a John Player Special Norton. He then gave the car for Bill to drive. The paint and decal were approved.

    It is sad but it started with Lutz and continues till this day to clean up the cultural issues at GM. This is why there were so many mistakes and why they went broke. While not perfect today it is much better and they will be ok.

    For what it is worth I rode in a EV1. It was not the car many thinks it was. It would have never sold for a low price and the failure may have set back EV models even more. They still need to prove themselves to many average buyers yet today.

    Their biggest mistake was selling Lotus. Their Second biggest mistake was acquiring Lotus. Their third Biggest mistake was selling Opel/Vauxhall/Saab. Their fourth biggest …

    I think the REFUSAL by Roger Smith to produce a 4 Dr version of the S10 Blazer cost GM MILLIONS in profits

    Jeep Grand Cherokee launched the HUGE Mid-Sized SUV segment

    – while GM missed several years of potential sales of 4DR Blazers!!

    GM’s biggest mistake was changing and then dropping Pontiac and keeping Buick. Pontiac flourished as the forward thinking brand that was always ahead of the pack in technology and performance for many years until that was diminished by wrong thinking corporate priorities and US Government influence. Just my opinion!

    Cadillac can’t seem to maintain market focus. They build world class luxury cars and blazing hotrods and then abandon them once these wonderful beasts become iconic and legendary. And what happened to convertibles and coupes? I fear for Cadillac’s knee-jerk plan for an all EV future. Get a grip. Pay attention to heritage and build on successes to make Cadillac the aspirational American car once again. The $300K Ceslistique with be an interesting halo car for movie stars and rappers, but its ultra-limited sales won’t pay the bills and keep the lights on at GM. Convenient EV charging is still decades away and there has to be a better alternative yet to troublesome lithium batteries.

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