New York, June 1: It is a company that helped lift hundreds of thousands of American workers into the middle class. It transformed Detroit into the Silicon Valley of its day, a symbol of Americas talent for innovation. It built celebrated cars, like Cadillacs, that became synonymous with luxury.
And now it filed for bankruptcy, something that would have been unfathomable even a few years ago, much less decades ago, when it was a dominant force in the American economy.
Rarely has a company fallen so far and so fast as General Motors. And while its bankruptcy appeared increasingly likely in recent weeks, the arrival of the moment is a staggering blow, particularly for anyone with ties to the company.
I never ever could have believed that one day this thing would go that way, said Jim Wangers, a retired GM executive who was part of the team that developed the Pontiac GTO, and the author of Glory Days about Pontiacs heyday in the muscle-car era of the 1960s. We were so successful, he added.
Founded in 1908, GM ruled the car industry for more than half a century, with a broad range of vehicles, reflecting the companys promise to offer a car for every purse and purpose.
The expression Whats good for General Motors is good for the country entered the lexicon, even though it was a slight misquotation of Charles E. Wilson, GMs president in the early 1950s.
But then GM began a long and slow process of undermining itself.
Its strengths, like the rigid structure that provided discipline early on, became weaknesses, and it lost its feel for reading the American car market it helped create, as Japanese auto makers lured away even its most loyal buyers.
Only eight months ago, Rick Wagoner, then its chief executive, stood before hundreds of GM employees to celebrate the companys 100th anniversary.
Were a company thats ready to lead for 100 years to come, Wagoner said.
Instead of leading, GM will instead be following other failed companies on a well-worn path into bankruptcy court.
The moment will reverberate beyond GMs epicenter in Detroit, to factory towns in other parts of Michigan and in states like Indiana, Tennessee and Louisiana. It will even be felt on Fifth Avenue in New York, where it built its financial headquarters, and Epcot at Walt Disney World in Florida, where GM sponsors the Test Track Pavilion, a showcase of its latest cars.
GM factories churned out family cars, pickup trucks and memorable muscle cars with taut, sculptured body panels that were rolling displays of American DNA.
A GM plant was a ticket to prosperity for the communities lucky enough to land one. GM literally put Spring Hill, Tennessee, on the map when it picked the town outside Nashville for its Saturn plant in 1985, prompting the hamlet to swell with new homes, motels and restaurants.
Now city officials around the country, including those in Spring Hill, nervously await phone calls on Monday to tell them if their plants will be among the 14 GM is expected to announce it will close in the latest round of cuts.
But even after its deep cuts, GM can still claim to be the countrys largest auto maker.