General Motors South Africa | Where have all the flowers gone? | 14 Minute read

GENERAL MOTORS SOUTH AFRICA – Finding New Roads?

It Seems the roads in South Africa have been blocked by Toyota’s, VW’s, Nissans, Kia’s, Fords, Hyundai’s and other Riff Raff.

The departure of GM from the local scene announced last Thursday is no surprise to me. It is a sad reminder that when you do not respond to changing times, the world is likely to give you a back-hander that can knock you out for good. This may sound like someone having twenty- twenty vision in hindsight but the demise of GM operations, particularly outside of the USA have been on a declining path for years, due mainly to a lack of focus. When last did you hear of an Opel, Vauxhall or Chevrolet (Camaro and Corvette aside) doing something that stopped you in your tracks and where you thought….”damn that’s cool, these folk are on a roll”? I am an avid supporter and cannot think of anything.   It takes massive commitment to keeping a brand relevant in the modern world…GM you have not shown that commitment to these brands in South Africa….period.

I listened to the well-selected corporate blurb from the local CEO on 702 on Friday and he obviously could not reveal or does not fully appreciate the real reason this has happened. It is a sad indictment to the operation…here is my view…

You have done very little of substance with these brands, certainly not in this country, no clear identity and that sense of belonging…long gone. “Braaivleis, rugby, sunny skies and Chevrolet” a dim and distant promise never fulfilled”.

Where does this come from?

A few places. Firstly the disconnect GMSA has had with the ‘people’ over the years.  Every year I go to the local “Cars in the Park” Classic car day at the Zwartkops raceway and thoroughly enjoy not only the cars but the passion displayed by the owners of their steeds. In the last two years I have participated in taking my 1963 Opel Kadett to the event, not only to display that same enthusiasm but in the hope that I could be part of an Opel or even GM group. Nope.

Here is a piece taken from a write up I did after an event over two years ago …. and note, this was written in 2014:

“  Of Car Cults, Icons, Streetcred and DNA –             August 2014

This is a call to arms… I am now tired of seeing this picture unfold ….someone needs to speak up.

Took my 1963 Kadett along to Cars in the Park at Zwartkops the other day, arrived early and looked for ‘Opel’ or ‘GM’ on the park map handed out at the gate. I did the obligatory entrance lap trying to find a suitable group amongst which to park the machine, initially… no luck. I persevered and eventually on the 2nd attempt found another Oliver parked at the hairpin. A few minutes later a further ‘Opeler’ arrived with his ‘68 Kadett coupe and so we had three GMSA 60’s Opels parked together, nice, I liked that.

There were designated areas for Corvette and Buick/Cadillac but no demarcated zone for local GM product nor, incredibly, out of 120 marked-out areas for car makes or car clubs …… no Chevrolet. There were naturally plenty of American Chevs there, as well as other US GM product but these were scattered around the place like confetti.

Opels at cars in the park B

Sometime later I strolled around the track to view the activity and the regular groupings were evident …..  I counted 68 Minis, 84 Dagenham Fords, Mercs aplenty and dedicated Alfa, Borgward, and yes even Fiat  groups, all seemingly car guys and very much involved. A quick stat of the day would show that the majority of cars were from the 60’s and 70’s….. but here’s the rub……during much of that time, GM South African was the biggest car manufacturer in the country… so there should have been a lot of the General’s stuff there then?…. No there wasn’t…. On this particular Sunday there were two Rangers, a few Chev 4100s, an Opel Manta, a Chev Constantia, a lone FC Vauxhall Victor , a Vauxhall Velox and an HA Viva, two Can Ams (one a very poor clone), a number of Holdens and a Chev SS but  these were not in a single location. Apart from two ‘57’s’ parked together, our little group of three Kadetts was the only show of local GM/OPEL ‘force’…….Really?…..?  I had to smile, this was déjà vu and I felt a twinge of personal accountability/……

LONELY-VAUXHALLS_1
LONELY-VAUXHALLS_2

LONELY VAUXHALLS

Opel Kadett Oliver

Another one

A-Lonely-Chev-SS

A Lonely Chev SS

Lonely-Oliver-in-2016

Lonely Oliver in 2016

Sad fact is, going back to 2010 I have been to the event as a spectator every year and a similar story unfolds every time…… Why you may ask? ..…Well the answer has to do with a lack of visible DNA, no Iconic leverage and even a lack of car culture in and around local GM products of the era. Together, I guess, the smart guys would talk about ‘branding’. It certainly has nothing to do with the cars themselves…..that Sunday I was quite staggered by the number of people that strolled up to the two little Olivers and raved about the cars. Comments like….. ‘best car I ever had’ …..’unbreakable’…. ‘lovely shape’…..’couldn’t break it in Botswana’…. one guy was mortified that he had ever sold his. Similar comment followed on other GMSA product from the old days…. That’s powerful stuff…..So what is wrong?

Chevy Smallblock

Go to virtually any open car show and you will probably see one of these. The small block Chevy…simply the greatest piece of contemporary engine engineering in the classic business. 

Well… from a broader perspective, viewed I guess from the GM glass-house….nothing. The irony of all this is that there is a lot of generic GM stuff going on at these events, so it masks the situation. As an example and as always at such shows , there are large numbers of classic GM imports and the single most powerful iconic presence was the plethora of vehicles running the small block Chevy engine. This magnificent machine is bolted into anything that needs a V8. In addition to the number of scattered Chevs, there were two Ford ‘rods fitted with the SBC as well as being the engine of choice for most Cobras and has built an amazing cult-like following…… Without doubt one of the great forces in the history of world motoring. I guess this tends to make one feel that all is OK…. It’s not of course…. but it is lovely to see the good stuff being perpetuated & the new LS small block building on that which the original started way back in1955, this Impala is one of many…..

LS Engined Impala

LS small block engined ’66 Chevy Impala Coupe – One of the best styles out of the 60’s  – awful wheels though & needs some period deep dish items with a bit more rubber…..  otherwise gorgeous.

But….and a big But……this magic has not rubbed off on local GM product. Now maybe my logic is skewed, but for a great company with a fantastic local heritage, the lack of enthusiasts representing cars of the time is tragic. The cars were good, reliable and amazingly, the majority absolutely unique to SA and created by that powerful engineering operation, which should make them even more iconic, so why the lack of support?  I have often pondered this, but the following story may just give a glimpse of how a lack of a single corporate identity, as well the General not being too willing to get down into the trenches with their followers, would probably be the main reasons.”

I’ll stop that story out of 2014 at this point…. This was not a isolated observation but something seen every year. The piece highlights a very simply flaw in GMSA’s multiple brand approach and the lack of definition around the GM core. Just how simple it would have been for the company to draw support from the massive base of support that is undoubtedly out there somewhere, I have seen no effort at all to pull this together.

But let’s take a look at GM’s more recent situation….. the reasons the company is in the dwang are complicated and have been eroding the foundations for years. I will bend a little and say that circumstance may have had a larger role to play than just ineptitude but either way it has been unchecked and has resulted in the news we heard last week.

For the rest of this post, here is an engineer’s perspective, so don’t think I will be kind to those marketing types. For most of my career in the business I have worked for companies that have had outstanding Engineering capability and have been let down in my opinion due to poor long term business and marketing strategy. Drive through any motor city in the country  today and you will see the strong brand identity of the major players…, Toyota, VW , BMW, Merc, Ford, Kia, Hyundai etc, then you have the scattered brands like Mahindra probably mixed with GWM and others…. and finally you have GM’s popsicle branding of  Opel, Chevrolet, Isuzu, Suzuki and of course GM. How long does it take marketing people to understand that that is about as hard hitting as being hit in the face with a damp cloth. Sadly, ‘GM’ counts for little in itself as a brand these days, simply because the company has done very little to get the man in the street to understand the relevance.

Ford, for Heaven’s sake is FORD, there is an unbroken historic model range and commitment linked to a single word, what the hell is GM in the same context?…not very much I’m afraid… and that’s the problem. Am I being unfairly critical?

I don’t think so, because the problem has been there since the late sixties when GM started losing it’s historical market footing and needed to compete on proper terms with new players. As I see it, the GM logo has often been an unnecessary complication rather than a fundamental requirement in the process. Having to hang on to the GM tag has diluted the message for all but the big brands and been something of a boat anchor for the Opels, Vauxhalls and locally for Chevrolet. These icons  have not been let out of the closet to stake a claim as independents. For example, despite being close to the product and brand, I see Chevrolet locally as three brands, the original American, The flash in the pan 70’s, and the Koreans…C’mon guys where’s the continuity and sincerity in all this? At least Ford has an unbroken legacy…this stuff counts for something.

Each one of the brands leaving the fold has deserved individual TLC and in my opinion GM has not done so. Worse is that again I don’t think GM has respected the fact that each deserves that focus from concept, incubation through to the meaningful message in the real product…..and in the context of the territory (country) of sale. In my view the General has looked at SA as one size fits all and took what was available from the Corporate vehicle supermarket, tried to make that fit locally without any real long term commitment and where that has not worked, slink out the back door. My conundrum is a little more specific. How does a company that for most of its existence has been the No 1 car maker in the world, find it difficult to compete globally. How do upstarts like Kia and Hyundai not only survive but grow and put the General to shame in every aspect of the local market? here is a view you may find at least worth considering…..

Let’s go back to 1967 for no other reason than that is when I joined the company and came face to face with something I found surprising. I have already declared my GM colours. That commitment came from a hereditary disorder caused by the simple fact that my whole family owned GM products. I started my career by joining the company in Port Elizabeth, that closed the loop….and much like selecting the family religion….it tends to determine things for you if you are not mindful of reality.

The surprise, however, was that as an enthusiast, it put me immediately on the outer fringes of GM society. This was a professional manufacturing company, well organised, systems driven and staffed by err well…people. The company at that time dealt in the following Brands:

Euclid, AC, Delco, Chevrolet, Opel, Vauxhall, Holden, Bedford, GMC, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Buick, Cadillac, Acadian, Fridgidaire and of course GM. Here there was hardly room for individual product support, you were committed to the corporate…..the brands  filled in the gaps.

Delco
GMC

Our major opposition down the road was Ford….. along with their FoMoCo…that’s it. Get the picture?

There was not much room for enthusiasts amongst this lot, if you had the passion, it became seriously diluted. A vacuous comment you may say, however, one needs enthusiasm, in whatever form you like, along with a bit of commitment to support a brand and you need to do so individually, in a focused manner sending a clear message to your prospective audience. You also need to move with the times. For me, GM relied for a large part locally on the historical significance of their footprint as opposed to the various brands meaning anything significant in their individual capacity. (Isuzu more recently the exception)

Most of these vehicle brands disappeared through time as direct American influence decreased. The 70’s featured a single brand effort with all locally manufactured product badged under the Chevrolet name and reverted to original branding in the 80’s and 90’s.

The track record on branding is an interesting one. Isuzu started life in SA as Chevrolet  and moved  back to being an Isuzu. Vauxhalls became Chevrolets and disappeared. Opels became Chevrolets and then back to being Opels. Chevrolets were Chevrolets but then masqueraded as Chevrolets in Vauxhall, Opel, and Daewoo underwear…..GM  became Delta and then GM again. You may think this is being picky…..its not….It simply underlines the very point of this post . GMSA has never really known exactly who or what their branding really stood for since the first Opel was rebadged as a no name brand GM Ranger back in 1968….this because they were embarrassed by the Vauxhall moniker originally planned for the car.  It may very well be that because the SA operation has been this way and to a large degree unique in its difficulties, that big brother cannot unravel the mess caused by a lack of intent…..

For the bigger picture, apart from Euclid (replaced in part by another GM brand, Terex), Pontiac and Oldsmobile biting the dust we now have Opel and Vauxhall crossing the floor, with the demise of Chevrolet in South Africa as the ultimate sacrifice to GM’s lack of focus. The last three are perfectly good brands able to stand up to any competition with the right support. I am not surprised this has happened. This is not the closing of a CKD operation to be replaced with CBU imports, this is GM throwing in the towel in South Africa, having been here since 1926.

As is common in our country, the events of the last few days have been turned into a political football by some opportunists. There may be truth in the present chaotic political situation having helped to drive that final nail into the coffin……..but I have only one comment for GM….

Shame on you for letting us down and allowing this to happen. I expected more…….

Paul

About the Author:

I have been in the motor industry all my life and despite spending 20 odd years with Datsun/Nissan, remain a GM man at heart.

2 Comments

  1. Johann W Grobler May 23, 2017 at 8:39 pm - Reply

    Paul, I think you have touched on the core issue! Too many Chiefs and only one GM. Take Euclid! I remember the utter chaos preparing the TS14 for demonstration in Phalaborwa! We were out of our league ! The top management were not in true feeling with the people.

  2. […] the blog “finding new roads” the story mentions the scattered branding within the local GM operation, accounting for some 15 […]

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