For a while in the early 2010s, it seemed that every profile of then-GM CEO Dan Akerson had to include a reference to the framed cover of the August 22, 1983, issue of Fortune magazine in his office. Business Week, the Washington Business Journal, even Fortune itself made note of the cover featuring each of GM’s four near-identical A-body intermediate sedans lined up in profile, all swathed in burgundy, under the question “Will Success Spoil General Motors?” The detail was meant to illustrate Akerson’s determination to rid GM of its old ways, but Akerson was far from the first GM executive to take that single magazine cover to heart.
The message conveyed by the four-car lineup was clear: GM might very well have been making money hand-over-fist by badge-engineering its products across its once-distinct brands – not only did the A-bodies prove popular with customers and permit greater cost savings via shared tooling – but it was doing so at the expense of more concerted engineering, marketing, and styling efforts that would better position the brand against the foreign competition slowly eating GM’s market share. If the average newsstand customer couldn’t easily tell the four cars apart, then how could the average intermediate car buyer distinguish them? And what did that say about GM management’s assessment of its own customers?