The Rise, Decline, and Fall of General Motors

I’m a used-book junkie with a particular love for car-biz biographies, and I find them particularly interesting when we can look back and see just how right or wrong the authors turned out to be. For today’s Boredom Bookshelf, let’s talk about three classic tales in the form of these General Motors books.

My Years With General Motors by Alfred P. Sloan

Alfred P. Sloan’s career centered around GM for the better part of 50 years, including 23 years as the company’s CEO. His lengthy tome, written around the time of his retirement in the mid-1950s but not published until 1964, chronicles GM’s evolution from William Durant’s disorderly brainwaves to America’s largest corporation.

Widely regarded as a business-school classic, this General Motors book also holds a lot of interest for car buffs. Granted, it’s not the most spellbinding read; large swaths feel rather like driving through Kansas. But there are some rather riveting sections, like the “copper-cooled” Chevrolet disaster and the lessons learned from it, how GM sorted out its engineering staff, and how styling and the annual model-change became industry staples. It’s also interesting to experience the gentlemanly way Sloan talks about people like Henry Ford, whose stubbornness created opportunity for GM, and William Durant, whose corporate chaos became Sloan’s lot to organize.

This General Motors book as a whole describes how and why the company’s bureaucratic system of management evolved and how it was supposed to work, which is noteworthy as the breakdown of that system is a key element in the other two books in this trio. My Years With General Motors is the easiest of these three books to get: Amazon offers it in paperback, Kindle, and audio editions, and you can buy it used for just a few bucks.

On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors by Patrick Wright

This was the authorized-then-unauthorized story of John Z. DeLorean’s tenure at General Motors, in which DeLorean himself—through ghostwriter Patrick Wright—tells the tale of his struggles as a square peg at buttoned-down GM. John Z. was a flashy dresser with new ideas, and he was responsible for many of Pontiac’s greatest successes, including the GTO, Firebird, and Grand Prix.

As head of the Chevrolet division, seen to be unmanageable because of its sheer size, DeLorean managed to straighten out some of the kinks and shepherd the second-gen Camaro and ill-fated Vega into production. According to Wright, DeLorean wanted to write a “no-nonsense, no bullshit” book. On a Clear Day gives us an unusually candid and rather rare behind-the-scenes look at GM in the 1960s and early ’70s; it illustrates how Alfred P. Sloan’s soundly conceived management system had grown like a tumor, to the point that it stifled creativity and competitiveness. The story concludes with a very direct assessment of what DeLorean thought GM’s executive strata was doing wrong and how he thought it could be fixed.

The book was written on the heels of DeLorean’s departure from GM in 1973, but once it was finished, he decided he didn’t want it published—though he apparently liked the book, he feared it would anger General Motors to the point of endangering his plans for an ethical sports car. After four years of back-and-forth, Wright published the book in 1979, and I think the world is a better place for having been told the story. It’s a quick and entrancing read, out of print but easy to find used. (DeLorean would publish his own autobiography in 1985, called DeLorean.)

Call Me Roger by Albert Lee

General Motors’ downfall in the 1980s is a source of fascination to many enthusiasts, and this General Motors book is a chronicle of failures at the top—specifically those of Roger Smith, GM’s chairman and CEO from 1981 until 1990.

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Author Albert Lee served as GM’s executive speech writer from 1984 through 1987, and while he represents himself as a dispassionate observer, it’s pretty clear he doesn’t hold a very high opinion of Smith. (Witness the book’s subtitle: “The story of how Roger Smith, Chairman of General Motors, transformed the industry leader into a fallen giant. “) The book—published in 1988, two years before Smith’s retirement—is a checklist of Smith’s and GM’s most controversial and calamitous decisions, including massive badge-engineering, the ill-fated Saturn division, the purchase of EDS and subsequent above-market-cost buyout of its founder, Ross Perot, and the wholesale dismantling of the checks and balances Alfred P. Sloan put into place during his tenure.

Should we call this book a hatchet job? It’s certainly unsympathetic to Smith, but these things really did happen, and the disastrous results of Smith’s tenure are seen in sharp focus when viewed through the lens of history. This General Motors book is a melancholy tale of the damage that simple human frailty can inflict on one of the world’s greatest and strongest corporations. Amazon has both new and used copies available.

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