100 Years of Chrome and Muscle: Why Chevy Matters To The U.S.A.
The American brand is gaining global popularity
It is General Motor's most important lineup, accounting for 1.8 million of GM's 2.6 million total sales in 2010. And as the brand faces resurgence in the U.S., it is reaching out globally making an impact elsewhere in the world.
And people outside of America like their Chevy's, too: In Korea, GM recently switched the name of its brand from Daewoo to Chevrolet. Sales jumped 50% after that move.
"The Chevy brand is in better shape than it has been in decades and decades," Bob Lutz, former GM chairman and author of Car Guys vs. Bean Counters: The Battle for the Soul of GM, told AOL Autos. "It is really only in the last 10 or 15 years that it really emerged as a global brand ... and it's now the fastest-growing brand in the world."
GM used the Woodward Dream Cruise to kick off a celebration of the brand's centennial. On Thursday, they paraded 100 Chevy vehicles, including 50 Chevy Volts, up and down Woodward Avenue. The birthday celebration continued throughout the weekend, and will likely be the biggest celebration GM will sponsor to mark the 100th birthday.
Many people don't realize Chevrolet is named after a real person, one of the fastest drivers from the beginning of the 20th century.
Louis Chevrolet, a Swiss immigrant and race car driver who once held the land-speed record for driving 111 mph, paired up with entrepreneur Billy Durant on Nov. 3, 1911 to start the automaker.
Their partnership was short-lived, breaking up in 1915. But Chevrolet had a lasting impact on the company. His name remains, as does the stylized Swiss cross, honoring Chevrolet's Swiss heritage. Today, the logo is referred to as the "Chevy Bowtie."
View Gallery: The Top Ten Chevys Of All Time
But despite the Swiss connection, Chevrolet's image is completely American. Slogans like, "See the USA in your Chevrolet" and "Like A Rock" have resonated with American consumers for years.
The company has had its best success with products that make Americans proud to be seen in the brand. Although it hasn't always lived up to the promise, Chevy has tried to stand for value, dependability and style. The Corvette – one of the most expensive vehicles in its lineup – is a good example of the value promise, because similar cars from other brands can cost twice as much.
A century after Chevrolet and Durant paired up, more than 200 million Chevrolet cars and trucks have been sold worldwide. The company estimates one Chevy is bought every 7.5 minutes. It accounts for about three-quarters of General Motors' sales, so its success is crucial to the automaker's comeback. In 2009, when GM went through bankruptcy, it shed and closed brands including Saturn, Saab, Pontiac and Hummer so it can focus more resources on building up Chevy.
The brand has become ingrained in our culture, popping up in more than 100 popular songs (the most famous probably being the line in American Pie: "Drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry.")
It's biggest influence probably came in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1953, the automaker introduced the Corvette – an affordable version of foreign racing supercars. The El Camino, Chevelle and Corvair all came out in that time frame, and hit a chord with American buyers. The Camaro came out in 1966, part of a muscle cars war that was brewing between GM, Ford and Chrysler.
In 1963, the brand was so popular, one in three cars sold in the U.S. was a Chevy.
The jingle, "See the USA in your Chevrolet" also resonated with buyers, Lutz said. "It's an expression of just how mainstream the Chevy brand was, and how well tuned it was for most of its history to the psychology and desires of the broad American public," he said. "The cars just always seemed to be right."
But it didn't always stay that way. The 1980s and 1990s were dark ages for the Chevy brand. At least for its passenger cars. SUVs and trucks remained popular throughout that time-frame, but cars suffered. GM didn't want to invest in the things that would make passenger cars successful, and instead let the finance guys make product decisions that resulted in bland, boring and sometimes simply awful cars.
They came out with a series of bad cars, like the later-year Chevy Caprices, Monte Carlos and Chevy Luminas. Lutz said some of the Caprice designs looked like "a great big beached whale."
Today and the future
But over the course of the past 10 years, the company has re-focused on style and putting out good products. Critics rave about the new Chevy Cruze small car, saying it can compete against the best Asian small cars on the market.
The Chevy Volt extended-range electric car is also a hit, and shows GM has the ability to keep innovating and to produce environmentally-friendly products. BMW executives even praise the Volt for innovation and refinement and have said privately they think GM should have sold it as a Cadillac. Its sports and muscle cars are still hits, with the new Camaro exciting drivers again. And the automaker is maintaining its strength with SUVs and trucks.
That's not to say there aren't problems. GM's bankruptcy in 2009 let the company emerge with little to no debt on the books, but another recession could deal another blow to the company. Financial troubles that hit the automaker during the banking collapse in 2008 may have hurt the company's research and development teams more than the public realizes: It could take another year or two to see if the company's belt tightening affected future products.
Still, things are looking up for GM and for Chevy. And Lutz says he has confidence it will remain that way.
"It's going to continue for the simple reason that American cars are the best they've been in decades," he says.
View Gallery: The Top Ten Chevys Of All Time
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