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GM celebrates 75 years in car business

By Charles E. DoleAutomotive editor of The Christian Science Monitor / September 29, 1983

*The 1984 Pontiac Fiero, a two-seater, mid-engine sports car, unites a steel space frame with polyurethane body panels, reinforced with fiberglass flakes.

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* The GM research laboratories recently came up with a new steel alloy that not only has great strength, but also the pliability to ease manufacturing.m

The Fiero and the new alloy show the determination of the world's biggest vehiclemaker to keep up with the times as it celebrates its 75th anniversary this month.

GM's founding, in September 1908, helped mark a bumper year for the fledgling American automobile industry. Henry Ford launched his Model T (more than 15 million were sold in the next 19 years) and Billy Durant launched the General Motors Company with an initial capitalization of $2,000, which soon grew to $12. 5 million.

Flint, Mich., carriagemaker William Crapo Durant had plunged into the automobile business four years earlier, when he reorganized the Buick Motor Company. Then, in the months following the organization of GM in 1908, Durant drew Oldsmobile, Oakland (now Pontiac), and Cadillac, as well as a variety of other companies, into the GM garage.

The innovative entrepreneur and zealous salesman even tried to buy out Henry Ford, but that lanky, independent-minded automaker drove away.

Meanwhile, in its first 12 months, GM was to build some 25,000 cars and trucks with a maximum work force of 14,000.

Now, as it begins its 76th year in the auto business, General Motors, along with the rest of the American auto industry, is emerging from the worst sales slump since the 1930s, consumers are still complaining about the cars they buy, and the Japanese continue to snap at its wheels.

Yet the early years of GM were far from a Sunday afternoon drive in the country, either, and a recession at the time didn't help.

Writing in ''The Decline and Fall of the American Automobile Industry,'' Brock Yates says, ''Durant's financial acrobatics with General Motors put the young company on the brink of bankruptcy in 1910.'' Durant was eased out.

''Although Durant lost control of GM, he did not lose his desire for an automotive empire,'' writes Richard A. Wright in the GM 75th anniversary issue of Automotive News. In rapid succession, he founded a number of other automobile companies, including Chevrolet, in November 1911. In organizing Chevrolet, Durant had joined up with Swiss racing driver Louis Chevrolet.

Then, ''with General Motors still in the doldrums,'' Yates says, Durant came up with ''a scheme in which he would trade Chevrolet stock for GM's. This move caught the attention of the Du Pont family of Wilmington, Del., which considered General Motors a fire-sale property anyway, but with enormous potential.''

In 1916, with the support of the Du Pont family, GM was reorganized and Durant was once more running the show. But by 1920, he was again on the street and a Du Pont took over the wheel.

An all-out battle with Ford Motor Company began, a battle which GM won easily because of what Yates describes as Henry Ford's ''sodbuster mentality.'' Simply, Ford stuck with the Model T far too long, and GM never looked back.

It was long-time chairman Alfred P. Sloan Jr. who set the corporation on the road to competitive, decentralized management, yet with strong central financial controls. An annual model changeover helped as well by assuring an ongoing demand for the cars that the company built.

GM's pioneering efforts in the automobile industry are manifold. GM, for example, developed the first successful self-starter, the synchromesh transmission, the two-cycle diesel that revolutionized the railroad industry, the first high-compression V-8 engines, shatter-resistant safety glass, and the refrigerant freon that led to the air conditioner.

The world's biggest automaker has been pioneering in robotics since 1961, when a robot was used to unload a die-casting machine. Today GM has some 2,000 robots in place, with 5,000 expected by 1985. GM has the only optically directed arc-welding robot in the auto industry.

Over the past 20 years, the firm has been a leader in the development of computer-aided design and manufacturing systems (CAD-CAM).

Cars are becoming increasingly complex. Computer systems not only control the delivery of fuel to the engine, but oversee many other functions, both inside and outside the car. GM engineers predict that in the future computers will expand to such areas as the transmission, suspension systems, electronic displays, braking, and more sophisticated fuel-injection and navigation systems.

In the years following World War II, GM found its biggest success and profits , as well as one of the greatest threats to its future. What the auto industry calls ''government control'' evolved in the 1960s and '70s as law followed law in such areas as safety, emissions, and road mileage.