Keith Adams unearths another fascinating might-have-been from his BL files. Here is the story of Project Gimbal, a feasibility study into a collaboration with General Motors.
This document spells out the pros and cons of a Joint Venture with the American giant. How would it have worked, how could the model ranges and factories have been integrated? Read on…
Dealing with the General
In 1977 and ’78, BL management was feverishly working towards developing a new joint venture with a major manufacturer in order to secure its future survival. We already know lots about the potential deals with Renault and PSA (specifically, Chrysler Europe), which you can read all about in the following links.
- L’affaire Renault – how BL looked into working with La Regie
- Triumph Acclaim development story – with insights into the Honda deal
However, many other manufacturers were seriously considered, most intriguingly of all including General Motors’ British arm, Vauxhall. The choice of GM for detailed examination stemmed from the analysis contained within BL’s business and planning board paper, ‘Collaboration – Possible Partners for BL Cars’, published in 1977.
In a nutshell, the paper concluded that the most suitable partner for BL would be Honda, as it would allow the British company to retain substantial control over the Joint Venture. Next best choice was Mitsubishi, although with the proviso of positive results from further research, and the results of any initial talks that were undertaken.
Project Gimbal: Moving to a bigger carmaker
The reason for favouring the Japanese companies was that BL thought that it could remain in the driving seat of any Joint Venture. Whether this proved to be the case with Honda is open to debate, but this was clearly the company’s preferred option instead of getting into bed with a larger manufacturer, which would likely consume BL.
The first choice in this category was General Motors and, in the document spelling out Project Gimbal, the reasons were laid out succinctly:
- GM had very strong financial and technical resources
- Vauxhall’s model range complemented BL’s better than any rival manufacturer. ‘GM’s small-sector competitor for the Metro (LC8) is not planned for launch before 1982,’ the document said.
- GM was significantly weaker in Europe than North America and ‘would potentially welcome a means of strengthening its position.
In 1977, GM was easily the world’s largest carmaker, with 7.05m built by 797,000 employees worldwide. Its model range – globally – encompassed cars, off-roaders, commercial vehicles, trucks, buses, railway locomotives, construction equipment, household appliances, electrical and electronic equipment, automatic transmissions and braking systems. No wonder BL was worried about the ramifications of a potential tie-up.
The state of play at Opel and Vauxhall
In 1977, Opel built more than 900,000 cars and held a 19% share of the German market. According to the Project Gimbal documentation, ‘Opel’s reputation has been based on conservatively-engineered, well-styled products that have retained a strong following on the German market.’ It was considered a relatively-profitable operation at the time across its two major car plants.
Vauxhall was less successful – with 93,237 cars sold in the UK for a 9.1% share of the market, the document summed-up: ‘Since the 1960s, Vauxhall has offered a succession of indifferent products, lacking the styling and engineering flair of its Opel counterparts.’
However, it was on the up in 1977 – since 1975 and the introduction of the Chevette and Cavalier, Vauxhall had been rebuilding its market share in the UK. Also, a significant stage in GM’s integration of its car operations took place in 1976, when imports of the Cavalier commenced followed by UK production the following year. The Opelisation of the UK model range was ramping up, with the arrival of the Carlton and Royale, which were both imports.
Project Gimbal: Why would GM want to work with BL?
BL management assumed that GM would be keen to join forces because of its weakness in European markets. It lagged behind Ford and, according to BL’s numbers, a combined GM/BL alliance would become Europe’s largest car company.
At the time of the Gimbal project, GM was alone among the volume players in not offering a supermini. Although the Chevette was priced and marketed as a supermini rival, it never really fulfilled this role – and it wouldn’t be until the arrival of the Corsa/Nova in 1982 that this situation would be reversed.
There were also ongoing concerned about the size of GM in the USA. The Federal Trade Commission’s enquiry into the activities of US carmakers was underway and, at the time Project Gimbal was being drafted, there were fears of a recommendation to break up GM – and a strong European manufacturing arm would be more likely to survive being separated.
How would the dealers integrate?
In the UK, how the GM/BL model range would be sold was cause for much debate. Given that there would be considerable model overlap, and much in the way of rationalisation that needed doing, it was interesting that BL was considering repeating many of the mistakes it had made in the past. It said: ‘There would be potential for the retention of marque names and for marketing products in competition with those from other GM divisions.’
And that meant a quick move to a two-franchise operation, incorporating selected Opel dealers into the existing Vauxhall and BL networks. In Germany, Opel would retain the single network, with BL discontinuing its dealers there. In the rest of the world, each franchise would be individually chosen, with the stronger marque retaining the dealer network.
In the USA, the divisional approach would result in ‘significant’ opportunities for BL. For example, Jaguar could be sold by the Pontiac Division in competition to Cadillac; the Triumph TR7 by Oldsmobile in competition to the Chevrolet Corvette. The existing BL network in the USA would take a long time time to run down.
How would the model ranges integrate?
The Metro (LC8) would be sold throughout Europe by all networks. Badging as an Opel and selective use of upmarket trim/performance packs would be used to give identity to different network offerings.
In the short-term, BL has a significant product weakness in the UK, due to the lack of a strong medium-sector competitor for the Ford Cortina. A quick move to a two-franchise GM/BL sales operation in the UK gives a potential means of overcoming this weakness by the offering of a rebadged Opel Ascona as a supplementary model to the Morris Marina.
This interim range could continue until 1981/82 when a new medium front-wheel-drive model, probably based on GM designs with Leyland power units could be introduced to replace the Marina. Allegro would be replaced in 1980/81 by versions of the new GM T Car.
To give BL the medium products it needs as soon as possible, it would be desirable to offer versions of both new GM FWD cars (T and U Car replacements – Astra Mk1 and Cavalier Mk2) through the BL network in the UK. Depending on available components, and the proposed bodystyle offerings, it might be possible to:
- Offer the GM T Car with an A-Series engine
- Offer the GM U Car with an O-Series engine
- Engineer unique sheet-metal for BL-badged models
- Offer unique BL derivatives (such as three-door/five-door alongside Opel estate)
The rationalisation of the real-wheel-drive Chevette production to Ellesmere Port could go ahead and the Chevette remain as a unique Vauxhall UK offering. This range would be developed as a sports/coupe/pickup/Recreational Vehicle (RV) range alongside the GM T Car versions.
In the large sector, the Princess and Carlton/Rekord are aimed at similar market sectors, with the Carlton/Rekord offering a newer, stronger product. A potentially attractive means of overcoming a direct product clash in this sector, giving an incremental model, would be the assembly of the front-wheel-drive GM X Car (below) to replace the Princess, possibly using O-Series engines.
The GM X Car is very similar to the Princess in size and configuration, as well as being significantly lighter. In the long-term, both FWD and RWD cars could stay in the BL-GM range as competing model lines.
The Vauxhall Royale/Opel Senator and Rover SD1 are also aimed at similar sectors, though very different in concept. A separate network approach could allow both to remain in the range, competing internally. Subsequent plans would develop component or body commonality – this would be a long-term exercise as both models are relatively recent.
Jaguar and sports products could be franchised by one of the combined GM/BL networks throughout Europe according to market conditions, and offered as ‘captive’ imports by GM US. As indicated in the medium sector review, the RWD T Car platform might potentially be developed for sports/RV applications as the mainstream family car business is taken over by FWD versions.
The 4×4 ranges of BL and GM are largely complementary. Land Rover’s major strengths lie in this the market for commercial and military 4×4 vehicles, whereas GM 4×4 vehicles are aimed more at the recreation market. The potential for a combined 4×4 range using the individual strengths of BL and GM in this field would be considerable. In addition, the Land Rover offers a product that could be marketed alongside the GM BTV (below) as a joint range for markets in developing countries.