General Motors

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(established 1908)

Under the leadership of William C. Durant, General Motors (GM) was formed from a number of earlier automobile manufacturing initiatives in the United States. These included the Olds Motor Vehicle Company (established 1897), the Cadillac Automobile Company (established 1902), the Buick Automobile Company(established 1903), the Oakland Motor Car Company(established 1907, later Pontiac Motor), and the Chevrolet Motor Company (established 1911). This diverse constituency was reflected in the company's devolved design policy with the different divisions designing, manufacturing, and styling under different brand names. Fundamental in the long‐term success of the company was the election in 1923 of Alfred P. Sloan as GM president and chairman of its Executive Committee in 1923. This appointment, one that he held until 1956, was important in establishing GM as a serious rival to the Ford Motor Company, with Sloan's stated strategy of ‘a car for every purse and purpose’ (1924) instrumental in this. Equally significant was the appointment of Harley Earl as chief stylist to the company in 1925, who also enjoyed long‐term employment at the company until 1959. One of Earl's first significant design projects was the 1927 Cadillac La Salle with its flowing lines, the first mass‐production model worked on by a stylist. In the same year Earl became the first head of GM's Art and Colour Section which, a decade later, became the Styling Section (later retitled Design Staff in 1972 and Design Center in 1992). Another Harley Earl design of note in the interwar years was the Buick Roadmaster of 1936. In the following year Earl produced the first of GM's ‘concept’ or ‘Dream Cars’, the Buick Y Job. Long and low, with elegant chrome detailing and electric windows it gave the public a dramatic vision of GM cars of the future. The importance of styling and the annual model change was reflected in the growth of the Section, building from a staff of 50 in 1927 to more than 1,000 in the late 1950s. GM divisions were also responsible for innovations other than styling, including the introduction of synchromesh gears by Cadillac in 1928 followed by shatterproof safety glass in 1929. In the following year the Cadillac V‐16 became the first production car with a sixteen‐cylinder engine, setting new standards for power and performance. Further safety considerations were also informed by GM's introduction of impact and rollover tests in 1934. The interwar years also saw considerable expansion of the company into overseas markets, commencing in 1923 when GM established its first European assembly plant in Copenhagen, Denmark. Manufacturing operations commenced in South America in 1925, in Australia in 1926, in Japan in 1927, in India in 1928, and in 1929 GM acquired the Adam Opel automobile manufacturing company in Germany. The ambitions of General Motors by the end of the 1930s were epitomized by the corporation's striking Highways and Horizons exhibit at the New York World's Fair of 1939–40. Housed in a dramatic, streamlined building by architect Albert Kahn. Visitors were taken around the central display of Norman Bel Geddes's dramatic Futurama on a moving travelator, giving them a vision—with full commentary—of the landscape of the United States in 1960, as if seen from a low flying aircraft. The dramatic futuristic metropolis of 1960, the highpoint of the exhibit, was characterized by large skyscrapers and multi‐laned highways with streamlined cars and commercial vehicles. Emphasizing how important motor transportation was to this corporate glimpse of the future, visitors to the GM Pavilion emerged from the travelator onto a full‐scale rendering of a 1960 street intersection where traffic and pedestrians operated on different levels.


Subjects: Industrial and Commercial Art.

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