The Managerialist Takeover of General Motors

Michele Zanini muses on Bob Lutz’s excellent book, “Car Guys vs. Bean Counters.”

Up until the early 1960s, General Motors’ design and engineering prowess dominated the industry. The most talented designers aspired to work in GM’s Styling department, and brought to world unique designs like the lateral fins of the 1959 Chevrolet or the vertical fins on the 1961 Cadillac.

The high watermark of GMs’s penchant for bold and imaginative design was the company pavillon at the 1964 New York World Fair: the 230,000 square foot structure boasted a 10-story canopy and an interactive exhibit (Futurama) featuring gas turbine-driven cars, acquacopters, underwater hotels, and other bold applications of future GM technology.

With daring and creativity came success: nearly half of all vehicles sold in the US bore the emblem of a GM division. At that time, the GM’s Tech Center in Warren, Michigan—housing Design, Engineering, and Advanced Research—was the beating heart of the company. The Tech Center was where automotive dreams materialized, concepts took shape, and production decisions were made. It was also where future Presidents and COOs made their name, often rising from the ranks of engineering.

Towards the end of the 1960s, according to Lutz, things started to change. A cadre of “professional managers,” often individuals with MBAs and strong financial backgrounds, became increasingly prominent and powerful. Driven by an unshakable faith in the power of optimization and rational planning, professional managers sought to bring order, efficiency, and predictability to how cars were developed.

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