This month, Chevrolet turns 100 years old. Happy Birthday Chevrolet. In the Chevy line-up over the years are many of the models that I fell in love with when I was growing up. I still love seeing an early Corvette and I have always been crazy about the ‘57 Chevy Bel Air hardtop, ideally in candy apple red though I could do without the fluffy dice hanging from the rear view mirror. But the Chevies I most wanted, came out when I was nowhere near driving age. When I reached driving age, the first car I bought and paid for was a ‘69 Chevy Nova. The car was OK transportation. The car had three options — a (powerglide) automatic transmission, an AM radio (with one speaker), and for $6.95, real vinyl upholstery. The car was reliable transportation but nothing more. I really wanted a car along the lines of the more classic Chevrolets. I wanted a car that I could connect with on an emotional level.
In 1974, a new Chevrolet Vega came out. The car was nicely styled, especially the hatchback and I purchased it with almost every option that Chevrolet offered. And in fact not only did I purchase a Vega, I convinced two of my friends who were in the market for new cars to purchase a Vega as well and by purchasing three at the same time, we got as good a price for the car as possible. The car was a sales success, not only among the three of us, but it also resonated well among the general public. It may not have been a 1957 Bel Air or a Corvette, but I liked driving it and even looked for reasons to drive. So far so good.
Within months, the three speed automatic transmission started slipping and shortly thereafter my three speed transmission became a one speed transmission. In rush hour, when I needed to drive at 15 miles per hour or less, I was fine; otherwise I was going nowhere fast…except back to the dealer. The dealer was courteous and immediately kept the car to repair the transmission. It seems that there was a synthetic transmission oil that had replaced the previous oil and no doubt GM saved a few cents on each car by this change. Which is fine…as long as the replacement was thoroughly tested and as durable as the original product.
Now, any car can have a one-time problem and especially in the mid 1970s one time problems were the norm on cars, not the exception. But there was one other flaw that quickly developed. Though the car was economical in terms of gas mileage (very important given there was a gas crisis a few months earlier), it tended to burn oil continuously which quickly negated the savings on gas. Lemon laws were no doubt inspired by cars like this.
Though I would pay the price for the Vega a second time in terms of trade-in value, I was ready to trade it in ASAP. My next car was a ‘76 Toyota Corolla. No problems whatsoever; no emotional attachment whatsoever. It took me more than a decade before I would drive another American car, and the vast majority of cars I have purchased or leased since that time were not built in the USA.
I wish Chevy well in its next 100 years and I like some of the cars that they are making today. But Chevy and GM will always provide a classic business lesson for all of us. If you take your customers for granted, if you always assume that people will see the USA in their Chevrolet, the customers and your market may diminish or disappear. In this very competitive environment, complacency will not carry the day in the automobile industry or in higher education nor does it deserve to.