How do we get from China to Warren, Michigan via Rüsselsheim? By Astra, of course.
In the late 70s the science journalist James Burke had an engaging series of programmes called Connections. It traced the links, innovations and the important contingencies that led from the distant past to the technology that we take for granted around us, such as plastic, for example. Behind the invention of this material lay the story of how the 17th Century Dutch preferred not to build warships but bulk carriers called hoorns; how the efficiency of these boosted the volume of trade which led to a need for more sophisticated finance methods… and so on until we get to the need for artificial dyes made with German coal by-products. After some more links such as a need for good artificial light (acetylene) in the 1800s we are led to a by-product of acetylene development which was vinyl chloride that was first ignored as useless sludge and then reworked to become polyvinyl chloride. And from there we get to plastics in all their many forms.
You´d never be allowed to make a programme like that today. Pitched now to to the BBC, they would demand it was presented by Cat Deeley, Denise van Outen and two Georgie Thompsons in bikinis instead of a slightly round, dome-headed bloke in thick glasses and a safari suit.
I mention this by way of a James Burke-like introduction to the connections between Imperial China, the 1963 Buick Riviera and the Opel Astra saloon.
Cultural-cross currents have swashed between China and the US for centuries. The vast numbers of Chinese who migrated to the US to dig gold and build railroads, for example. This population movement is marked by the Chinatowns found in Los Angeles and San Francisco and the popularity of Nos. 34, 241 and 117 with noodles. However, what is less well known is that there is a bit of what looks like Beverly Hills in China. Badaguan has a huge area of large and opulent mansions built in the mixed-up style of Hollywood-meets-Europe, as filtered through the tastes of local architects. They sit upon wide, tree-lined boulevards that ought to take one in a black Cadillac to the Chateau Marmont, circa 1949. Equally little-known is that there is a chunk of Southern Germany in China, in Tsingtao or Qingdao. Between 1898 to 1914 German colonialists built a town using the exact same styles and methods of construction as were prevalent in Germany. However, they built these in a sparsely vegetated landscape not dissimilar to Southern Italy. The gothic-arched windows and steeply pitched rooftops sit incongruously in a maquis terrain. And due to German imperial ambitions up to WW1, there are a very great number of German-style buildings scattered elsewhere around China still. Today, the outside world makes its presence felt in China, among other ways, through cars. Chief among those is Buick.
At the moment, it is very likely that GM´s most successful line of cars is Buick. However, for decades in its home country Buick has struggled with an image of being either an old man´s car, or a car for white-bread Midwesterners – certainly not a product for those who actually care about their driving. And, at the very same moment, one of GM´s most underperforming brands are the Opel/Vauxhall pair (For the sake of clarity I won´t bother with Vauxhall as this brand has had no unique cars since the 1970s and has next to no engineering capacity outside that related to glue and badge technology). It was suggested loudly some time back that Opel should be closed or sold so as to clamp shut the massive financial wound that it has become for GM since the late 90s. However, to do so would be a rather grave error. GM realises this and Opel has disentagled itself first from Fiat and now PSA as the writing on the wall gets clearer. GM needs Opel and Opel needs GM. GM does not need Fiat or PSA.
Opel is the central link joining the new Buicks in the US which are getting good reviews and selling well with the ones in China. At the same time, China is exerting a huge force on the Buick brand which is China´s number one foreign marque. So, in this story there is a very complex mixing of cultural and corporate needs with the engineers at Rüsselsheim and Warren, Michigan acting as channels. The story is thus as complex as that of the architecture of Badaguan and Tsingtao and the cultural collisions of Chinatowns across the US.
First, I´d like to consider why Buick even exists today. Up to the 1960s it produced some extremely attractive and popular cars for buyers unable to reach the price points occupied by Lincoln, Cadillac and Chrysler. Despite GM´s intentions, most Buicks in the 60s were probably not obviously inferior to all but the most costly Cadillacs and looked every bit as good (or excessive) as their dearer cousins. But, from the 1970s onwards, Buick´s identity as the maker of strongly performing cars faded into a reputation not unlike that of Rover, Wolseley and Humber, cars for the nearly dead. Buick made the mistake of following their core audience of affluent 40 year olds into their 50s, 60s and 70s. And at the same time the sterile homogeneity of the Irv Rybicki-era GM cars further erased Buick´s capacity for style. In the 80s only nose cones and tail-lamps distinguished Buick´s LeSabres from the cheaper Chevrolet and Pontiac´s sharing the same bodies-in-white. In the 1990s Buick rallied somewhat but only so far as to make nicer looking Jaguars than Jaguar did. By the time the ´07-08 finance crisis came along and GM filed for bankruptcy, Buick might very well have gone the same way as GM´s other zombie brands, Oldsmobile and Pontiac. Except for one thing.
The last Emperor of China liked Buicks. So did China´s first provisional president. Somehow the memory of this link to China´s elite at the turn of the last century has been retained. GM is shifting about 500,000 Buicks a year and they are seen as being sporty, prestigious and very appealing. The button-cushion seats and Victorian detailing we think of when picturing Buick has no resonance with the Chinese. In contrast, Mercedes Benz has imported its old reputation in Europe as the car for the rich and retired. So Buick in China is cooler than Mercedes. This success of Buick in China has meant two things. One is that it would be impossible to kill the brand in the US since part of the marque´s appeal is its American origins. They have to be sold there. And the second part of this is that Opel has been providing the engineering and construction know-how to move Buick into a market sector that was unsuccessfully hogged by Pontiac and Olds. The Sigma-platform which lurks under every Opel Insignia is the key. The German drive-trains and suspension technology are precisely what Buicks needed to become more performance orientated than they were permitted to be when Buick spelled comfort and beige velour upholstery.
This situation has echoes (albeit in a twisted, fuzzy way) of Buick´s influence on Opel in the 1960s. When GM´s president of design Bill Mitchell wanted to create an American version of the European grand-tourer, stylist Ned Nickles came up with a shape that became the Buick Riviera (having been rejected by Cadillac who had their own ideas). Little of the 1963 Riviera´s style – and it had style – ever really filtered down to the other Buicks that came later, which is odd given the roaring success of the Riviera in its first generation. But Ned Nickles was seconded to Opel and, while there, worked on the the car that ought to have shown Cadillac the way forward : the 1969 Opel Admiral “B”; he also worked on the 1965 Opel GT and 1965 Opel Rekord “C”. The coke bottle flanks and the vertical lamps of the Admiral and Rekord and the complex sculpture of the Opel GT are all pure American. Of course, this should not seem odd as the Americans´ aim after WW2 was to make Germans as American as possible (not hard as millions of Germans moved to America only two generations earlier). For Germans of a certain age, American values were much admired.
Furthermore, from 1958 to 1975 Opels were sold in the US as captive imports. And Buick dealers had the franchise. Was Nickles sent to Germany to style Opels to be sold in the US or to sell Buick-style to Germans? As it happens the best-selling Opel models in the US were ‘64- ‘72 Kadett, `71 -´75 Manta, and the ´68 to ‘73 Opel GT.
It was very unfortunate that the Opel Admiral didn´t nudge Cadillac out of its rut as, in many ways, the Admiral was a better handling and better made car than any of the vehicles offered in the same size by Ford or Chrysler**.
Adam Opel AG had another injection of American style in the 80s when Wayne Cherry was their head of design. In this period styling features seemed to float from studio to studio. The distinctive aerodynamic style of the 1991 Chevy Caprice has echoes of the 1984 Opel Kadett and/or the 1986 Opel Omega “A” and, in turn, the 1992 Buick Skylark carried the rear wheel-arch treatment of the 1991 Opel Astra “F” (though exaggerated to grotesque extremes). The 1980 Opel Ascona was also the basis of the Chevrolet Cavalier, among others. It would take several weeks to disentangle all the other cross-pollinations, but I hope this is illustrative of the point. Wayne Cherry moved from Opel to become GM´s president of design in 1992 (whereupon Opel influence on GM cars stopped for a decade.)
Now I´d like to consider the situation as it is now.
So what are Buick USA making? The N. American Buick range of just six cars is now heavily indebted to Opel. It consists of the Vernao, the Lacrosse, the Regal, the Encore, the Enclave and that´s it. Only the Enclave is unrelated to a GM Europe product. This is a very different situation from a decade ago where Buick´s line-up majored on US-designed and US-made saloons such as the excellent but under-estimated Park Avenue and the unexcellent and deeply ordinary Century and Regal (though the Regal in launched Buick´s sales in China in 1999).
The Opel Europe range has about ten or fourteen cars, depending on how you class the Astra OPC and Signum Tourer models. I won´t deal much with Opel´s range other than to say that I was surprised how diverse it is, which is not what you’d expect of a firm bleeding cash. Their motto is Wir Leben Autos but I think Wir Lieben spenden might be closer to the mark.
Simultaneous with this Germanising of Buick is the Sinification of Buick from the other side of the world. Buicks not only have to be designed for the US (by German engineers) but they also need the capacity to suit Chinese conditions and to fit the diverse Buick-China range. This is a mix of various GM platforms with more or less convincing Buick make-up applied. I counted ten vehicles when I went to Buick China´s website but I could be wrong. One is the Opel Astra (also sold as the Buick Verano) which is being marketed as the Buick XT. And the 凯越 appears to be a Daewoo Nubira or Lacetti and is not coincidentally the cheapest car there***. Most are saloons or mini-vans; there are no sportscars, which is an odd omission. Where is the Buick Cascada?
To sum up this knot of connections is not simple. The products in question are part of a very tightly interconnected net of trade and cultural flows. Opel has been part of GM for a century, but was always characterised by German thoroughness. Buick has seen its fortunes wax and wane and then wax: it was the car of Emperors and Hollywood celebrities, the car of Idaho pig farmers and dentists and now it´s the car of (variously) open-minded young Americans and successful middle-class Chinese customers. Buick now relies on Opel for engineering expertise and China for sales. Opel´s engineers probably still want to design their cars to compete with BMW and not Ford or PSA; and presumably the Chinese like their Buicks to feel American even if they are engineered in Hesse, with vineyards down the road.
James Burke used to wind up his digressions with a surprising remark such as “…and so the Mexican taste for square table mats led, eventually, to the invention of the neutron bomb in a Californian desert….” I will try my own staggering denouement: it would appear here that the Chinese Emperor´s taste for American luxury cars now means that tomorrow´s Astra and Insignia will be shaped to suit the taste of affluent families in Heilongjiang. And what was once a minor player in Buick showrooms between 1958 and 1975 has now taken over, not unlike a cuckoo in the nest.
What began this investigation was the launch of the 2011 Buick Verano, a saloon based on the Opel Astra. It has received good reviews since going on sale and, in many ways, it’s a vastly nicer car than the Astra saloon, chiefly because Buick´s engineers have rather a lot of experience in getting rid of NVH. This car led me to consider Buick´s success in China but also to think of the way that, over the years, Buick and Opel have affected one another; at the moment it looks like Buick´s needs are driving Opel but those aren´t the needs of the US market in which Buick was born. But also, it seems that Opel´s capacity for engineering exceeds its ability to market its cars. Yet the demands of the tough European market give Opel the skills to engineer cars for international sale. Without Opel there would be no Corsa, Astra or Insignia platforms which are the basis of millions of sales for GM.
Without Opel, GM would have no engineering to export. Notice that Chinese Buicks are almost all based on Opel Designs. Without Buick´s presence in the US, GM could not sell cars in China. And without worldwide sales, Opel could never cover the costs of its engineering. Just as 1900, today is an interconnected world, but it would seem if we look back it has always been the case, from German libraries in China to Chinese districts in California and American-styled cars in 60s Germany.
Burke, James, (1978) Connections, Macmillan.
Warner, Torsten (1994) German Architecture in China, Ernst and Söhn.
Armee, C. Edson, ( 1989)The Art of American Car Design. No data. USA)
** To correct this mistake, Cadilliac tried remodelling the Opel Omega as the Cadillac Catara, “the Caddiy that zigs”. Remembered as flop, they reached 95,000 sales over four model years.
***When I went a back a few hours after posting this article to do some fact checking at Buick´s Chinese I found access blocked for no reason.