Before 1930, the cars from different companies did not yet differ very much. There was more work being done on the technology under the body-work. Apart from the four cylinder, the six-cylinder cars also appeared in the lower price range in the USA. Ford capped it all by putting a mass produced V8 on the market. Because the most important mechanical problems had pretty much been solved and also the closed automobile had somewhat asserted itself, the styling became a very decisive aspect. In the meantime, the engines were also strong enough that higher speeds were possible. Consequently the cars become lower, wider and needed, due to the improving roads, less ground clearance. A low centre of gravity seemed to be the order of the day at that time.
GM strategists name the Cadillac La Salle of 1926/27 as their first product. With this model they tried to bridge the gap between Buick and Cadillac through a reduced price. It is also the first result of Harvey Earl's work, who came to GM as their first designer. The car was still not quite perfect, but it was wider and lower than its competitors. With the success of this vehicle, in 1927 the first special department in an automobile factory was developed, it dealt with colour- and thus, styling questions. At first, it was not taken seriously within the GM organisation, and even produced a flop with the 1929 Buick. Nevertheless, it became clear how vital the styling was for the sales success of a vehicle.
No, the customer did not automatically accept all the fashion-changes, and successful automobile companies were very careful about not installing too many innovations in the car at one time. In America it became, from then on, a solid ritual, to offer a new model every year, even if its predecessor had only been slightly changed. A part of this was the huge drop in prices after the first year, and in the subsequent years it was not much less. Every year the companies competed against each other to determine who the champion was, in GM, often also against competition from inside the company. However, more about this later.
Mind you, we are not yet talking about the pontoon car bodies, which only appeared around the end of the thirties. Wood and leather were still found in the construction of car bodies. The production of, e.g., one-piece roofs, was a slow and time consuming process for the sheet-metal presses. During this time, the styling transformed the car into a more useful- and drivable object, however, after the war one rather had the impression, that pointless ideas were being added to the same basic concept, over and over again, at least in America.
From the styling to the sales, and thus, to the trade was only a small step. GM changed from the distribution through wholesalers who supplied contract-bound retail dealers, to the direct distribution to so-called, privileged retail dealers. In the course of history, the relationship of GM to its dealers, seems to have been exemplary. Since 1934 these would be directly represented before the board of directors, by the General Motors Dealer Council. Years before, important assistance was provided to the dealers in the form of a standard accountancy and the possibility for avoidance of bankruptcy. As important examples of their handling of dealers, are mentioned here, the taking over of costs incurred through no-sales of the last year's model and the alteration of the dealers contract.
The mid thirties were also marked by the foundation of the car workers trade union (United Automobile Workers), and the famous sit-down strike in the former Fisher factory in Flint, Michigan at the beginning of 1937. The Flint company was selected by the workers because it produced car body parts which were urgently required by Buick, Pontiac and Oldsmobile. At first however, it was a normal strike, then when it became known, that GM wanted to outsource the production facilities, the factory was occupied by the members of the UAW. The union had recruited its members secretly, and for the most part, had also kept their names a secret.
A judge confirmed the illegitimacy of the strike. However, after it became known that the judge owned GM shares to the value of more than 200,000 dollars, he lost any semblance of respect that he once had. The strikers were permanently supported from the outside, and also the police did not succeed in ejecting the strikers from the factory. This conflict lasted for a full month, even after the government had intervened and advised the GM board of directors to back down. In the end, GM recognised the new trade union. Here the battle came to a peaceful end, whereas during the conflict with the much harder reacting Ford company, one person even died, as a result.
On the technical side of the motor-car construction advancement was being made. The engines were stronger, the coachwork more recognisable, the chassis clearly better and the tyres became less prone to punctures, which could, however, also been the result of the improved quality of the road-surfaces. Low pressure tyres (like those we have today) and also independent suspension for the front axle, became the technical 'state-of-the-art'. The advantage that the Opel factory in Germany had, was huge. They profited from the American inventions, e.g., the light-utility-vehicle (Opel Blitz), the self-supporting car body made completely of metal (Opel Olympia) and the fabrication methods which were much more profitable, compared with the German competition.
On the other hand, it became more and more difficult for GM as a foreign owner of a former German company. The National Socialists had forbidden, among other things, GM to transfer profits abroad. Auto-Union and Mercedes were massively supported and the German Volkswagen was, from the beginning, with state subsidies, an attempt to compete with the cheapest, non-subsidised vehicle on the German market, the Opel P4. When an inexperienced employee introduced the P4 as a 'volkswagen' (peoples car), in front of Adolf Hitler, the dictator turned on his heel and left without a word. Later it would turn out that Opel (with American help) could hold its own very well against Hitler's favorite marque, Mercedes Benz. During the war, the Opel Blitz would be prefered, over the respective Mercedes truck.
While we're on the subject of the foreign enterprises of GM, the assembly plant in Australia, which was connected to the Holden Company in 1931, must still be mentioned. For a long time only parts were produced here, the first automobile only came out in 1948.
The Second World War, into which the USA however, only entered in 1941, brings the period described here to an end. Only on the arrival of this date, did the military production receive priority over the civil interests. According to Wikipedia, GM alone delivered one tenth of all the required armament goods. The statement, made by president Sloan, that the company had not substantially earned on the war, but had fixed the profits at half of the otherwise usual rate and had corrected downwards if the expenditure for raw materials and wages permitted, is surprising,. This sounds very different from the other war suppliers. 11/09