Making sense of the GM brands

2019 chevy pickup

Some people may be baffled by changes in General Motors branding, especially if they’re relying on old memories of what they used to be. That’s no surprise; brands change over time, sometimes radically, as Pontiac did when John DeLorean decided being grand-dad’s car was less profitable than selling higher-performance Chevys.

Cadillac ct-6

Let’s take a look, then, at the easiest brand first: Cadillac. When you think of Cadillac, forget those old long, low 1970s Caddies with the shiny classical-Greek grilles, putting comfort and torque first. The new Cadillac is, well, BMW in America. It’s a BMW that can be purchased with greater interior luxury and more space for the money, and GM is very good at advanced gadgetry; but BMW is the target. Cadillac wants to be your ultimate American driving machine, and they’ve been driving at that for ages.

Then there’s Buick, which has moved up to take Cadillac’s place as the comfort brand. A Buick might have high performance, but the mainstream Buick is all about a smooth ride, quiet interior, and all that entails. It’s also a big-selling brand in China, which is one reason you can buy Buicks in the USA, but not Oldsmobiles or Pontiacs.

2020 GMC Sierra pickup

GMC has played around a bit with being “Chevrolet Truck Professional,” but I think that, despite the “Professional Grade” commercials, it’s basically a luxury version of the usual Chevy truck or SUV. Convince me otherwise. Sales aren’t phenomenal, but at these prices, they don’t need to be; GMCs start high. At one point there seemed to be an idea that Chevy and GMC would be like Plymouth and Chrysler (or, later, Dodge and Chrysler) were, for a while, where one begins where the other stops; that’s largely been abandoned, so they could sell more high-end Chevy trucks. Turns out GM buyers don’t want to go from Chevy to GMC as often as the veeps thought, any more than Plymouth or Dodge buyers automatically moved up to a Chrysler… at least, not after the 1950s ended.

2019 chevy spark

What of Chevrolet? It’s the mass-market line. If there’s a definite identity holding everything from Korean-based Spark (above) to big pickups (below), I’d like to know what it is. They do have a common set of factors, so if you’re a GM guy you know you’re in a Chevy and not a Ford or Dodge or Toyota, but it’s a catch-all brand. If it’s not a premium car, and sometimes (Corvettes in particular) if it is, it’s going to be in the Chevrolet bin. Chevrolet, Toyota, Ford, … the brands that cover all the bases.

2019 chevy pickup

If you were ever curious, Buick was the very first brand General Motors was created around; the founder of GM was already running Buick when the idea of merging with Maxwell, Ford, Olds, and others was brought up. He ran with the idea, adding various companies as he could, got overextended, and was forced out. He teamed up with race driver Louis Chevrolet to design a new car, achieved a huge market share very quickly, used the value of the new company to gain a controlling interest in General Motors, and took over GM again. He was forced out again, too, ran his own car company for a while, and finally, when he died, was trying to build the country’s largest bowling-alley chain.

Holden is the Australian representation of General Motors; Opel, the European arm, was sold off. The newest GM brand, Saturn, died of internecine warfare and changes in direction; Olds of fuzzy identity syndrome; and Pontiac of losing its credibility over too many years of first being “Chevy with lots of body cladding” and then “Chevy without lots of body cladding.” There was a plan for Pontiac to commit itself to being a real performance brand, which probably would have worked if, on the same day, they hadn’t announced a Pontiac version of the Daewoo-based Chevy Aveo. Nothing speaks “high performance” like an entry-level Korean subcompact… and so Pontiac, once a companion car to the Oakland, is no longer with us. Nor is the Oldsmobile, named after Ransom Olds, the first man ever to build cars on an assembly line. GM started out with the most brands, and ended up with more than Ford, but still fewer than FCA.

Next time: making sense of the many Fiat Chrysler brands.

About David Zatz 145 Articles
The founder of famed Mopar site allpar.com (and its publisher for 20 years), David Zatz has been writing about cars and trucks since the early 1990s; he also writes on organizational development and business at toolpack.info and covers Mac statistics software at macstats.org David has been quoted by the New York Times, the Daily Telegraph, the Detroit News, and USA Today. You can reach him by using our contact form (preferred) or by calling (313) 766-2304

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