The end of 2009 brings to end a tough decade for automotive brands — and ’09 was particularly brutal.
Auto brands are not easy to establish and once the investment is made, they’re even more difficult to kill. Earlier in the decade, it was a big deal when Chrysler dropped the axe on its rather history-rich Plymouth brand (2001). General Motors laid to rest its 107-year-old Oldsmobile division in 2004 after a wrenching and costly four-year process. But as 2009 wound down, the auto industry prepared for an unprecedented number of brand executions, most notably from GM.
No less than four GM brands were slated for sale or outright termination in 2009: Hummer, Pontiac, Saturn and the Saab European-vehicle division. What happened that GM needed to suddenly offload so much baggage? Changing times and faulty management.
— With Detroit’s automakers making criminal profits from Sport Utility Vehicles, Hummer seemed like such a good idea when GM bought the right to market and sell Hummer from military contractor AM General in late 1999.
Television images of Middle East military operations fueled the mystique. Wily accountants soon found a Pentagon-sized tax loophole that had well-heeled clients driving the 10-mpg behemoths all but free. But evolving consumer environmentalism and a couple of summers of high gasoline prices quickly grenaded Hummer’s paramilitary-hip image. GM now is scrambling to salvage something from the investment by offloading Hummer on a Chinese tractor maker.
— Saturn, which GM already has written into the history books, may be the most lamentable casualty of the brand purge of 2009. Started by GM in 1985 as the “anti-GM” division that was going to focus on no-haggle pricing and customer relations, the import-fighting Saturn concept was a good one.
Soon enough, however, GM management found a way to water it all down and Saturn became just another marketing-driven GM division that wasn’t really offering its customers anything different anymore. Despite building a wide base of loyal fans, it really was all over for Saturn by the early part of the decade.
— Pontiac: GM’s celebrated “performance division hasn’t been selling true performance cars for decades.