Early Monday morning US time, General Motors filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection with the help of the US Government. The company is hoping to follow in Chrysler's footsteps and go through a "structured bankruptcy", coming out shorn of its debts, leaner and meaner.
GM was founded in 1908 by William Crapo "Billy" Durant, who was then the head of Buick. In 1909 Durant's GM bought Cadillac and Oakland, which would later become Pontiac, amongst others.
Widely acknowledged as the first concept car, the 1938 Buick Y-Job was styled by Harley Earl. Head of GM's Art and Colour section, Earl pioneered the idea of styling cars as a whole, because most early cars were designed by engineers with styling left as an afterthought.
Saab is wont to remind us that its cars are "born from jets". This tag line is nothing more than marketing malarkey when attached to its current models, but when used in connection to its first car there's actually a grain of truth to the claim. Founded in 1937, Saab stands for Svenska Aeroplan Aktiebolaget, or Swedish Aeroplane Company Limited.
Literally "first Saab", the Ursaab was a prototype that boasted a tear-drop shape and was, as a result, highly aerodynamic. The Ursaab was slowly refined into the company's first production vehicle, the 1949 Saab 92.
It wasn't until 1990 that GM bought into the Swedish car maker.
GM produced the first V8 in a 1914 Cadillac. By the 1950s V8s were so synonymous with American car culture that songs about this engine type were being penned, including Motown's Rocket 88, a tribute to Oldsmobile's V8-powered 88.
Today's version boasts massive 6.2-litre or 7.0-litre V8s, macho swagger and handling to challenge European supercars. Back in the beginning though the original Corvette was a fancy little dandy with a straight-six engine. The 1955's V8 and the later Sting Ray models fixed all that.
During the '50s GM regularly took its concept cars on a tour of the States. Dubbed Motorama, these shows presented the public with a fanciful look at possible cars of the future. For Motorama, Pontiac produced a series of Firebird concepts, which not only featured jet plane styling but also gas turbine engines. This Cadillac Cyclone concept car, however, only features jet fighter styling; under the hood there's a rather more prosaic V8 engine.
Featuring a rear-mounted engine, Chevy's Corvair was GM's attempt at slimming down the American family car. Initially successful, the Corvair was undone by its swing axle rear suspension, which led to rather spooky handling. It was famously, or infamously, singled out in Ralph Nader's Unsafe at Any Speed — the book that eventually led to mandated safety measures.
Stonking great V8s and a healthy disrespect for corporate GM helped transform the sleepy Pontiac brand into a byword for performance and muscle cars. Perhaps the most noted of these was the GTO, which helpfully borrowed its name from a Ferrari.
It wasn't the first front-wheel drive car — the 1928 Alvis 12/75 FWD, the 1929 Cord L29, the 1934 Citroen Traction Avant and, most famously, the 1959 Mini all beat it to the production line — but it was the first mass produced, made-in-America, front-wheel drive car. Oh, and it had a V8 in it too.
Thanks to a combination of the 1973 oil crisis, more stringent pollution controls, higher insurance levies and safety advocates, the era of the muscle cars end in the mid-1970s. This '76 Firebird is one of the last to feature a large capacity V8.
In an era not known for its exciting, affordable cars, GM really pulled one out of the hat with the Pontiac Fiero. So far America's only mass produced mid-engine car, the Fiero had in its crosshairs enthusiasts who valued fuel parsimony. Like the Toyota MR2 from the same era, the Fiero had a four-cylinder engine — in this case a 2.5-litre unit.
Saturn was founded in 1985 to fight the Japanese small car onslaught by being a "different type of car company". During its infancy it operated outside of GM's divisional structure, had its own factory producing a unique range of plastic-bodied cars and its own chain of "no hassle, no haggle" dealers. Starved of product and technology until recently, the Saturn brand is set to close down unless it can be sold.
This three-door coupe — one door on the passenger's side, two doors on the driver's — isn't quite up there with GM's other technical innovations — the first V8 engine, the first air-conditioner and the first automatic transmission.
Made by GM between 1996 and 1999 to satisfy a Californian law requiring car makers to produce a certain percentage of zero emission vehicles. Initially, the EV1 came with lead-acid batteries, while later models had a nickel-metal hydride battery pack instead. The incredibly aerodynamic body allowed for a quoted range of between 80 and 145 kilometres, with a recharge time of three hours from a 220V power point.
Although it had a nominal price of US$33,995, the EV1 was only made available in California and Arizona on a three-year lease agreement, through which GM retained ownership of the car. Citing maintenance costs, GM junked most EV1s after they were returned at the end of their loan period. This not only lead to an outcry from distraught owners but also, eventually, to the 2006 movie
Initially a tall-body wagon, the Chevy Suburban slowly evolved and grew into the large people-carrying behemoth it is today. Now based on GM's popular full-size ute range, the Suburban's simple underpinnings allow for fat profits. A fixation on these easy profits, however, is undoubtedly a part of GM's descent into bankruptcy protection.
With its filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, we decided to keep this gallery up beat and focus on the brighter parts of GM's history. That said, we couldn't resist sneaking in one of the company's automotive faux pas.
Likely to be the ugliest car ever built, it's unsurprising that the Aztek was a commercial failure.
By the late 1990s, thanks to poor engineering and an ageing buyer base, Cadillac had lost much of its cachet and prestige. GM decided to invest heavily in the brand that once claimed to be the "standard of the world". In 2002, Cadillac relaunched itself with the new CTS sedan, which featured edgy "art and science" styling and garnered much acclaim. Emboldened, the company produced a concept for a potential top-of-the-line limousine, the Sixteen, which, true to its name, has a V16 engine under the hood.
Late to the hybrid party, GM is hoping to make up valuable time with its series hybrid Volt. Unlike the Toyota Prius, the Volt's wheels are driven only by an electric motor and can be charged overnight via mains electricity. The Volt will only fire up its petrol engine to recharge the Lithium-ion battery pack when charge is low, making the Volt an electric car in most city driving.