Image: Chevrolet Volt in China
GM  /  Wieck
A Chevrolet Volt is shown at the China Pavilion at Expo 2010 in Shanghai, China. With roughly two-thirds of its sales in 2010 coming from overseas markets, General Motors is becoming less reliant on the U.S. market and instead focusing its efforts on growing markets like China.
Image: Paul A. Eisenstein, contributor
By contributor
updated 3/2/2011 11:04:27 AM ET 2011-03-02T16:04:27

When it comes to automotive nameplates, arguably none is more distinctly American than General Motors’ biggest marque, a brand that long urged buyers to think of “hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet.”

But these days Chevy doesn’t feel quite so American.

The famous Chevy bowtie seems to be popping up everywhere, from Berlin to Beijing. A full 45 percent of the brand’s sales came from outside the U.S. last year, and Chevy wants to raise its share of the international market in 2011. Chevy is a dominant force in Latin America and one of the fastest-growing nameplates in both Europe and China.

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But while Chevy seems to be growing into GM’s global brand, it isn’t carrying the burden entirely on its own. While the humbled GM might have eliminated half of its North American brands after emerging from bankruptcy in 2009, it has actually been expanding the number of brands it operates around the world, most recently creating the Baojun — or “Treasured Horse” — brand for the Chinese market.

The establishment of the brand reflects a significant shift in GM’s strategy. A half century ago, former GM Chairman “Engine” Charlie Wilson told Congress that “for years I thought what was good for the country was good for General Motors, and vice versa.” The comment is frequently misquoted as “what’s good for General Motors is good for America.” However worded, the image of GM was indelibly linked with American manufacturing might.

No longer. Roughly two-thirds of the company’s unit sales in 2010 came from overseas markets, notes analyst Ed Kim, of automotive research and marketing company AutoPacific.

“GM is becoming less reliant on the U.S. market, and by necessity, they have to,” said Kim.

While GM’s image in the U.S. has become tarnished over the years, as its fortunes have declined, it’s quite another story in much of the rest of the world (perhaps with the exception of Europe, where massive losses nearly led the automaker to sell off a controlling stake in its Opel subsidiary in late 2009).

The Opel brand is still a headache for GM, but Chevy is picking up some of Opel’s losses in Europe and its sales are growing elsewhere, most notably in China. Indeed, all of the various GM brands are having a hard time keeping up with demand in that booming Asian nation.

While not the first Western auto manufacturer to put a factory behind the Bamboo Curtain, GM was one of the early players there, and what was a controversial decision at the start of the new millennium is now seen as a brilliant bet. Last year, GM became the first automaker to sell more than 2 million cars in China, selling 2.3 million vehicles, and if the economy there stays solid some analysts believe it will soon hit the 3 million mark.

GM’s biggest brand in China — indeed, the largest car marque on the Chinese market — is Buick, a name that until recently seemed destined for the automotive scrap heap back in North America. But it survived the post-bankruptcy brand obliteration, explained GM Design Director Ed Welburn, “because it would have tarnished Buick’s image [in China] if we eliminated the brand back home.”

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Until now, most of the growth in the Chinese car market has come from the economically fertile Pacific Coast crescent, but that trend’s likely to shift given that smog and traffic-clogged cities like Beijing now aim to slow automotive growth. The Baojun brand was created specifically to go after consumers in second and third-tier cities in the Chinese interior.

With 20 new products coming under its various brand names, GM is betting it can significantly boost its current 13 percent share of the Chinese market — where it already sells more vehicles than it sells in the United States.

The automaker is also pressing the pedal to the metal in other key emerging nations, most notably Brazil, Russia and India which, along with China, are collectively known as the “BRIC” markets.

With the U.S. market recovering at a relatively moderate pace — and consumers demanding hefty incentives to lure them into showrooms — GM officials admit that they are giving careful thought to how to use their finite resources. Prior to the GM’s Chapter 11 filing, former GM Vice Chairman and “car czar” Bob Lutz acknowledged that the carmaker would likely put more of an emphasis on overseas operations.

That’s especially obvious with the Buick brand, where key product development decisions are increasingly being made at GM’s Chinese headquarters, in Beijing. Much of the small car development work for Chevrolet and other GM brands has shifted to what used to be known as GMDAT, or the old Daewoo brand, in South Korea.

The shift reflects the GM’s move to global platforms. It’s a strategy that most carmakers — American, Asian and European — have adopted. Rather than develop a product specifically for each market, GM is working up global platforms that can be shared in, say, China, Germany and the United States.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the cars are identical. There can be notable updates made to reflect regional demand. But the approach helps to build economies of scale.

On the question of whether focusing on a global strategy takes attention away from the U.S. market, GM’s Vice Chairman Steve Girsky notes that “each market will have its own distinct tastes and desires. The challenge for us is to meet those needs while communizing as many parts and components as possible.”

The global approach is also helping GM expand its presence in new markets, “where we want to remain strong,” GM CEO Dan Akerson said recently. But the focus on global products can have a downside, especially if it results in the delay of other programs.

“Because of the bankruptcy, we're about 12 to 15 months behind where we would want to be in new product introductions in this country," Akerson recently acknowledged.

The chief executive has authorized a spending blitz designed to help fill what could be a real product hole in the United States over the next several years, but it could be difficult to catch up, GM officials admit. If so, the carmaker will wind up being that much more dependent on foreign markets such as China, to pick up the slack.

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Explainer: Ten leaps forward in car technology

  • Image: Three-point seatbelt
    Volvo’s Nils Bohlin invented the three-point seatbelt in 1959.

    English physicist, mathematician and astronomer Sir Isaac Newton once famously wrote — with perhaps a touch of false modesty — that “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

    Thus has the car industry incrementally improved from its primordial horseless carriage beginnings to the magic carpet ride of today’s almost incomprehensibly complex machines with their raft of safety, environmental and convenience devices adding to the basic transportation function.

    Here are 10 of the car industry’s most important technological changes.

  • 1886 Benz

    Daimler AG

    It all began with Karl Benz and his construction of a self-propelled, three-wheel vehicle powered by a single-cylinder 0.75-horsepower engine using a leather belt and two bicycle chains to transmit power to the rear wheels.

    However modest this beginning, with its exposed engine parts and whirling bits menacing anyone who examines it too closely, the 1886 Benz launched the industry and was the foundation of today esteemed Mercedes-Benz brand. (Maybe the leather upholstery was an early clue to the company’s luxury intent?)

  • 1912 Cadillac with electric starter


    The electric starter — invented by Charles Kettering at his Dayton Engineering Laboratories Co. (Delco) in 1911 — became standard equipment on Cadillacs in 1912, paving the way for all cars to feature electric starters. This accelerated the industry standardization of gasoline internal combustion engines over steam and electric designs. It also put more women behind the wheels of cars because prior to the electric starter they tended to avoid using difficult-to-start, hand-cranked cars.

  • 1914 Ford Model T

    Ford  /  Wieck

    Introduced in 1908, the Model T was just another low-end car from the multitude of regional manufacturers in this country. In 1914 Ford separated itself from its rivals and became (for a while) the world’s largest industrial concern as the result of the Model T’s assembly switching from small teams of craftsmen assembling each car to a moving assembly line of unskilled workers each contributing the same small bit to every car on the line. Construction time to build each car plunged from 12 hours and 30 minutes to 93 minutes, and the car’s price fell from $690 to $360, while annual sales mushroomed almost ten-fold and Ford doubled workers’ salaries to $5 a day.

  • 1930 Motorola car radio


    Next time a boom car rattles your windows at a stop light, think back to the days before Paul and Joseph Galvin developed the first commercially available car radio in 1930.

    The Motorola car radio overcame a host of challenges, including electrical interference, finding space in the car for the bulky radio components and making the radio durable enough to survive the pounding of primitive roads. The popular 5T71 radio debuted at the Radio Manufacturers Association convention in Atlantic City, N.J., following a demonstration drive from Chicago to prove its durability.

  • 1940 Oldsmobile Hydra-Matic transmission


    Today few new cars are sold in the U.S. with a manual transmission and a dwindling portion of the population even knows how to use one. We can credit this dismal state of affairs to the invention of the automatic transmission and its debut in the 1940 Oldsmobile.

    The original Hydra-Matic automatic transmission offered benefits in terms of efficiency that surpassed subsequent designs, but that approach was abandoned in pursuit of smoother gear changes, which were more important to drivers. The company touted the ability to navigate stop and go traffic and to park without stalling the engine as the automatic’s primary benefits, and those features continue to drive the technology’s appeal today.

  • 1946 Michelin radial tire


    Until Michelin developed the radial, tire design had evolved little from the dawn of the car industry. The radial moniker refers to the direction of the reinforcing belts, which are turned perpendicular rather than running parallel to the direction of travel as in bias-ply designs.

    The benefits include a more stable footprint, reduced fuel consumption, longer tread life and better handling. The near-absence of any kind of maintenance or attention required led the government to mandate tire pressure monitors in cars because drivers had long since stopped checking the condition of their tires.

  • 1959 Volvo three-point seat belt


    Volvo engineer Nils Bohlin invented the three-point seatbelt in 1959. The belt appeared in the automaker’s cars that year, and within a decade the belts were mandatory equipment in all cars sold in the United States.

    Bohlin’s background was in aviation, where he developed ejection seats, so he understood the necessity of securing the torso and not just the pelvis as the lap belt had done. The elegant simplicity of his solution is confirmed by the inability of newer seat belt designs to displace the three-point seatbelt 50 years on.

  • 1972 General Motors air bag


    While air bags didn’t become commonplace in cars until the 1990s, GM conducted a large field test of 1,000 1972 Chevrolet Impalas equipped with experimental air bags. Between 1974 and 1976, the company offered the world’s first production air bags in its cars, with the first appearing in a 1974 Oldsmobile Toronado. Though the company was prepared to build 100,000 air bag-equipped cars a year, only 10,321 were sold over three years despite a reasonable price of between $180 and $300 for the option.

    The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety confirmed the robust construction of the early system by testing two of the old cars in the 1990s. Neither car ran and even the radio and clock didn’t work in one, but the air bags still deployed perfectly in the institute’s crash lab.

    “What’s important to remember at this point is that the air bags GM put into those early cars worked fine,” wrote IIHS president Brian O’Neill in a 1993 letter to the New York Times.

  • 1995 BMW and Mercedes-Benz electronic stability control

    Mercedes-Benz USA

    These premium carmakers battled to be the first to introduce an electronic stability control system that automatically stabilizes a car in the event of a slide. Though these expensive V-12 models were the first to feature stability control, they quickly verified the technology’s value with significant reductions in crashes. Subsequent studies showed that stability control-equipped cars are about one-third less likely to suffer a fatal crash, a result that encouraged the U.S. government to mandate stability control for all cars starting in model year 2012. The real safety advantage of stability control is that in contrast to seat belts and air bags, which mitigate the damage that occurs in a crash, stability control prevents many crashes from happening in the first place.

  • 1996 OnStar telematics

    GM  /  Wieck

    In our increasingly connected wireless world, the notion that the car should connect to a network over which it can share information may seem like an obvious development. But it was less obvious in 1996 when GM’s OnStar division was launched, using analog cellular telephone technology to send information to drivers and to automatically report crashes.

    Today other carmakers have their own telematics services and each month OnStar is now responding to 2,300 crashes, 10,000 requests for emergency assistance and nearly 30,000 requests for roadside assistance.

Video: Buick's on a roll


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