When you think about car makers the US, UK, Germany, Italy, & Japan are the big names that come to mind. Of course the actual manufacturing is done all over the world no matter what parent company name goes on the final product or where it is ultimately sold.
It’s also true that a ton of cars are made by manufacturers other than the big 5 listed above. Many are even sold in large markets like the US but some of them are not sold outside there own borders. This series starts with the big auto countries but it won’t stop until we’ve covered every country that makes a car for sale to the public.
The best way to tackle Car Manufacturers in the US is to break them up by category. Let’s start with the big three, and within those we’ll take on one parent company per post. Later in this series we’ll get to some of the the start ups and those that have been phased out or gone out of business.
General Motors Parent Company
Vital Stats: 1908-Present, Headquartered in Detroit Michigan, manufacturing in 8 countries.
GM is the largest car maker in the US and was biggest in the world until recently losing that title to Toyota. GM is ranked 22nd on the Fortune 500 rankings of the largest United States corporations by total revenue however they went bankrupt in 2009 and were restructured.
While GM stands for General Motors, it’s critics often say it refers to government motors as there is a long-standing relationship between GM and the US government. In addition to the 2009 bailout, during WWII GM was the largest federal defense contractor and even now builds military vehicles under their GM Defense division.
In addition to their well known consumer brands GM maintains divisions like BrightDrop for delivery-focused service, OnStar for vehicle safety, security and information services. ACDelco for auto parts and so on. The company provides financing via GM Financial, and is developing self-driving cars through its majority ownership in Cruise LLC.
GM Intends to phase out internal combustion engines (ICE) by 2035 including hybrids. This move is controversial as many experts doubt the infrastructure will exist to maintain that many EV’s. Still others doubt that EV’s are that much better than ICE cars since “green energy” generation is still very inadequate to the demands of current power usage in the US.
The largest source of revenue a the moment is GMs four vehicle brands available to the general public–Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC.
Vital Stats: 1899-Present, Headquartered in Detroit, Michigan.
Founded in 1899 as ‘Buick Auto-Vim and Power Company’ by automotive pioneer David Dunbar Buick.
GM founder William C. Durant had served as Buick’s general manager and major investor before ultimately forming General Motors in 1908 and placing Buick under that marque as a luxury brand.
Buick is the oldest current brand in the US. Autocar, founded in 1897, is the oldest vehicle maker in the western hemisphere; though they currently build heavy trucks. Oldsmobile, is also older–founded in 1897–but is now defunct. Studebaker was founded in 1852, but did not make automobiles until 1902. Conversely, Henry Ford produced his first car in 1896 but did not start the Ford Motor Co. until 1903.
In 2017, Buick sold a record 1.4 million vehicles worldwide–mainly in now China, (where 80% of Buicks are sold). This could be because buick is positioned as a quality luxury brand compared to most GM cars, although not as luxury as Cadillac. The near-enough-to-top luxury appeals to a buyer of quality items, but the not-quite-the-top luxury status makes them seem like a value. In other words the existence of Cadillac might actually boost sales among Chinese business executives. Buicks are also sold in the United States, Canada, and Mexico.
Vital Stats: 1903-Present, Headquartered in Detroit, MI. Founded as Henry Ford Company in 1901. Renamed to Cadillac in 1902. Acquired by General Motors in 1909.
The Cadillac Motor Car Division builds GM’s luxury car models. Major markets include the United States, Canada, and China but they distribute in 34 other markets worldwide. In 2019, Cadillac sold a record setting 390,458 vehicles worldwide. The name is honor of Antoine de la Mothe Cadillac, who founded Detroit, Michigan and crest emblem is based on his coat of arms.
Cadillac is the fourth oldest car brand to originate in the US, but unlike other GM models Cadillac has origins in Henry Ford. Technically Henry Ford Company was Ford’s first car company. After a dispute with his investors Ford left in 1902 taking several key players with him. William Murphy and Lemuel Bowen called in engineer Henry M. Leland of Leland to appraise the plant and equipment for liquidation. Instead they convinced the financial backers to keep making cars. They rebranded and restarted and it worked.
This will upset many GM fans, but you can really see Ford’s brilliance in Cadillac’s success. The complete interchangeability of its precision parts had allowed it to lay the foundation for the modern mass production of automobiles. The forefront of technological advances, Cadillac introduced full electrical systems, the clashless manual transmission and the steel roof. The brand went on to develop three engines setting the standard for the American automotive industry.
Noteworthy: many car companies had a policy that discouraged sales to African Americans. The great depression was a hard time for automakers around the world, with Luxury brands taking the biggest hit. Many European Luxury makers went out of business at that time. Cadillac’s national head of service was a mechanic names Nick Dreystadt, who convinced the board of GM to reverse their policies on race which increased sales by 70% in 1934. Dreystadt was promoted and GM has enjoyed a better reputation among people of color than Ford. (To learn of Ford’s challenges around race see the next post in this series.)
Vital Stats: 1911-Present, Headquartered in Detroit Michigan. A private company for the first 5 years, acquired by General Motors in 1918 and a division of GM ever since.
Formally the Chevrolet Motor Division of General Motors Company, less formally and more commonly known as Chevy. Chevrolet brand became the volume leader in the General Motors family, selling mainstream vehicles to compete with Henry Ford‘s Model T in 1919 and overtaking Ford as the best-selling car in the United States by 1929.
It would take an entire post to catalogue the story of Chevy as a brand around the world, with GM acquiring local companies like Daewoo of Korea, Holden Special Vehicles of Oceana, Vauxhall in the UK, and Opel of Germany, then going into competition with itself, trying to raise or lower brand perceptions and ultimately keeping a mix of brands depending on which cars sold well in which market. Just know that top selling brands like Silverado, Camaro and Corvette can be found in many places around the world where other GM cars at the value cars level will have another brand on them entirely.
This isn’t to say that the name Chevy has low recognition outside the US. Chevy is actually what GM is known as outside the US, the way the English call it Hoovering instead of Vacuuming or the way we call it Clean-x instead of facial tissue. Inside the US Chevy sells all sorts of models from subcompact to SUV.
The companies founding is a soap opera so let’s dive into that craziness, because it’s a foreshadow of why so may around the world are more aware of Chevy than they are of GM. On November 3, 1911, Swiss race car driver and automotive engineer Louis Chevrolet co-founded the “Chevrolet Motor Company” in Detroit with his brother Arthur Chevrolet, William C. Durant and investment partners William Little (maker of the Little automobile), former Buick owner James H. Whiting, Dr. Edwin R. Campbell (son-in-law of Durant) and in 1912 R. S. McLaughlin CEO of General Motors in Canada.
The thing is Durant was a founding member of GM back in 1908, but by 1910 he’d been fired. His involvement in Chevy was a direct attempt to get his position back at GM. Durant used the Chevrolet Motor Car Company to acquire a controlling stake in General Motors with a reverse merger occurring on May 2, 1918, and propelled himself back to the GM presidency. Then got himself fired again in 1919.
Chevy benefitted a lot from the merger though, from a technology standpoint. Buick had patented the overhead valve and cross-flow cylinder design which was more efficient than the flathead design Chevy had started with.
Vital Stats: 1903-Present, Headquartered in Detriot, MI. Formed as General Motors Truck Company (GMTC) in 1912 after merging Rapid Motor Vehicle co. and Reliance Motor Truck co.
Based on the name you’d think GMC would be flagship of GM divisions (which is actually Chevrolet), but in fact the division is primarily focused on trucks and utility vehicles. GMC currently makes SUVs, pickup trucks, vans, and light-duty trucks. In the past, they also produced fire trucks, ambulances, heavy-duty trucks, military vehicles, motorhomes, transit buses, and medium duty trucks.
To distinguish GMC from Chevy, who also makes trucks (like the Silverado), think in terms of a multi-brand dealership, where you’d see GMC vehicles (like the Denali series and the electric, off-road Hummer EV series) next to Buicks on a premium/luxury lot.
GMC was founded in 1900 as Grabowsky Motor Company by brothers Max (1874-1946) and Morris Grabowsky, in Detroit, and renamed Rapid Motor Vehicle Company in 1902 when the brothers moved operations to Pontiac, Michigan. In 1909 William C. Durant gained control of Rapid Motor Vehicle Company and made it a subsidiary of his General Motors Company. In 1908 Durant gained control of Reliance Motor Car Company, another early commercial vehicle manufacturer. In 1911 General Motors formed the General Motors Truck Company and folded Rapid and Reliance into it. In 1912 the Rapid and Reliance names were dropped in favor of “GMC.” So, yeah, more Durant shenanigans.
GMC is where Pontiac Comes into and out of the picture. GMC essentially took over Pontiac, continued to manufacture their vehicles for a time and then took over their plants to make GMC products. GMC also made busses for quite a time, but ultimately spun off and sold bus operations as part of a general effort to reinforce their brand as rugged utility vehicles.
GMC is another GM division that is heavily involved in making military vehicles. During the First World War, the company provided the Model 16 3/4-ton truck, and modified its production to provide 1-ton troop carriers and aviation support vehicles, and by 1918, more than 90 percent of GMC truck production was for military use earning a Distinguished Service Award. During the Second World War, GMC Truck produced 600,000 trucks for use by the United States Armed Forces.