If you ask a casual car nerd when was the real golden age of GM, you’d probably get pointed to the late 1960s or early ‘70s. That’s when we got the Camaro, the big block muscle cars, the ultra-crisp Cadillac Eldorado. But if you looked closer, you could see that GM was already in decline. There’s an easy way to spot it, and conveniently we have it on video.
I’m talking about GM making its cars cheaper, simpler, and just generally shittier with each passing year. It might be hard to believe looking at today’s GM, but there was a time when GM’s cars were all steadily improving. Coming out of WWII, GM cars started getting all kinds of new tech, like ever-smoother automatic transmissions, fancier trim, more detailed styling, even much-improved engines. It was 1955 that GM came out with the legendary small-block Chevy V8, and became America’s first company to make a billion dollars in a year. As the money rolled in, GM invested it back into developing front-wheel drive (as seen on the later Toronado) and even a rear-engine compact car to rival imports (the much-maligned Corvair).
But as the ‘60s wore on, GM became less interested on making cars so much as making money, and cost-cutting took over. The Corvair got cancelled and the blocky, conventional Chevy II/Nova took its place. After 1965, you couldn’t even get fuel injection in a Corvette; Chevy just dropped it knowing that old school carbs were cheaper power.
My personal favorite place to see the decline in GM quality (other than looking at how ornate pieces of trim on Cadillacs slowly disappeared over the course of the decade) is in the taillights of Chevy Impalas. A 1961 Impala had six multi-piece lights, each with their own inside and outside lines of metal trim, set in individual housings. With each passing year these lights looked cheaper, and thinner, and carried less pride and stature until by the late 1970s you had these single blocks of cheap ugly plastic, as thing and as low-rent as possible.
In this episode of our trivia show, we went through and tried to ID each year. Watch the devolution happen before your eyes.