That Time GM Accidentally Made An Ad For The VW Rabbit

This is all nice and weird GM stuff, so get ready for a lot of head shaking

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Image: GM/VW

One of the things I love most about GM is that it’s a company with colossal engineering and production might that very often proves itself capable of making some of the most baffling decisions known to humankind. Like a genius you got drunk and then smacked with a 2x4. A great example of this has to do with an Isuzu that GM sold as a Buick Opel, and the amazing way they decided to advertise it in 1977 that ended up with them actually promoting the Volkswagen Rabbit. Bang-up job, fellas!

Okay, let’s explain what was going on: for a while in the 1970s, Buick was importing and selling German Opels so they’d have a decent small car to sell to compete with Volkswagen and the new crop of Japanese imports.

This worked reasonably well until 1974, when exchange rates with Germany changed so much that the little Opels were no longer an affordable option. Luckily, GM had other options, including an ownership stake in Japanese carmaker Isuzu, who had a little car called the Gemini that was actually based on the Opel Kadett C.

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So, in 1975, GM re-badged these Isuzus as, initially “Opel by Isuzu” which was at least sort of accurate, then decided to re-badge them as Buick Opels, meaning this Isuzu was named for two companies that weren’t the companies that built it.

I suppose this isn’t that different than any captive import, like the Mitsubishis sold as Dodges, but it’s not like Chrysler decided to throw in an extra brand that didn’t build the car also, such as if they tried to sell it as a Dodge Sunbeam or something.

Okay, we could go down an Isuzu/Opel rabbit hole here, but I want to keep some kind of focus, and that focus is on GM’s incredibly confusing ad campaign for the Buick Opel.

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In 1977, Buick did a big PR stunt called the “Buick Opel 5-Car Showdown,” where they compared the Isuzu-built Buick Opel against a bunch of other popular small cars of the era: The Toyota Corolla, the Subaru DL, the Datsun B210, and the Volkswagen Rabbit.

All were actually pretty decent cars, so it’s not like Buick was sandbagging the test. In fact, I’m pretty sure they weren’t sandbagging because, well, they didn’t win.

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Yep, in Buick’s own test, the big media stunt paid for by GM to sell Buick Opels, the Buick Opel came in second place.

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Image: GM
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I mean, I admire GM’s remarkable honesty here, and coming in second out of that pack of cars isn’t shameful—but it’s not winning, either. There’s so many baffling things about how GM handled this.

For example, why didn’t they just throw out the Rabbit entirely and make the whole campaign the Buick Opel 4-Car Showdown? They could have just couched it as they were putting their car up against the top three Japanese imports, and nobody would have really questioned that, right? This was the era when Japan was first really becoming a serious competitor on the U.S. market, so maybe no one would have even asked, hey, why didn’t you invite VW?

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And, significantly, they could have claimed to have won.

Maybe GM thought they could play on the old VW advertising formula of good-natured self-deprecating humor, but that only really works if you, you know, aren’t also just coming out and saying that one of your competitors is better.

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If GM thought that maybe VW would just be cool about this and not make a big thing of it, then I’m sorry to say, uh, wake up, GM. Because of course VW took this inadvertent gift from GM and ran with it:

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Image: VW
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I mean, what did they think was going to happen? Essentially, GM spent a lot of marketing money to create a fantastic ad for Volkswagen, and then doubled the amount of times it ran by running the same basic ad themselves, as well as VW’s own take on the ad.

Also, GM really should have seen this coming. Of that lineup of five cars, only VW and Subaru had space-efficient front-wheel drive layouts, VW was the only one with a truly up-to-date transverse FWD setup, and the VW was, arguably, a much more modern design, overall.

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Someone should have maybe walked this through a bit more before committing to a whole huge media blitz and test.

That said, I really do admire GM’s forthright acceptance of the outcome, which is the sort of thing I really cannot imagine happening today. No carmaker is going to undertake a public head-to-head test unless their victory is absolutely guaranteed, or can be at least taken via creative scoring or whatever.

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Ah, I kind of miss old lovable-loser GM! It was a much easier company to relate to, at least for (hopefully) loveable losers like myself.

(Thanks again to field agent Hans for bringing this to my attention!)