Skip to main content

History of General Motors: Timeline and Facts

The name “General Motors” used to go hand in hand with the American way of life; an industrial titan that helped build the way of the U.S. In more recent years, the company's image has been tarnished, but, renewed from bankruptcy, it continues to operate on the world stage.
  • Author:
  • Publish date:

History of General Motors: Timeline and Facts

One of the surviving entities of the old American titans, General Motors’ (GM)  has a history that is in essence the history of America. That includes the good, and the bad. Whether it be the development of some of the first luxury vehicles to the production of military equipment in World War II, General Motors has been a major player in U.S. history, dominating the auto industry as the largest in the world for many years. More recently, the company has not been without controversy over some poor business management, as well as questionable commitments to American manufacturing.

History of General Motors

The beginnings of GM go hand-in-hand with the rise of American industry. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, General Motors began in 1908 when William C. Durant led the creation of the company. The company actually brought to together different companies that included Buick, Oldsmobile, and Oakland, among other lesser known names today.

The company grew, introducing the electric starter, eventually becoming the General Motors Corporation, adding Chevrolet and Delco to its army, and expanding to become the largest automaker in the world for many years.

A Timeline of General Motors

1908-Head of Buick Motor Company, Williams C. Durant orchestrates the creation of the General Motors Company. Much of the original intent of the company was to offer many different types of cars to appeal to different people, going against the Ford model of making one car.

1911-Durant’s overzealous spending habits lead to his forced exit by the board. He would manage to get back into the company after acquiring a great deal of shares, after involvement with the Chevrolet brothers.

1916-The company is reincorporated a General Motors Corporation.

1918-Chevrolet auto company joins General Motors.

1920-Durant is forced out of the company for the second time. Alfred Sloan Jr. takes over and reorganizes the company into Cadillac, Buick, Oldsmobile, Chevrolet and Pontiac. Sloan’s leadership led to a central business that governed the separate car company’s.

1920s thru early 1930s-General Motors expands with overseas assets like Opel, Vauxhall, and also acquired the company that would later become GMC trucks.

1929-GM is bigger than Ford. (F)

1931-The company is the world’s largest auto conglomerate.

1950s-1960s - GM’s success is unparalleled as the American economy booms.

Scroll to Continue

TheStreet Recommends

1970s-Things start to get tougher as Japanese car companies like Toyota (TM) begin to make waves with their cheaper substitute goods.

1980s-Expansion into data companies and Hughes Aircraft.

1990s- The company has suffered losses as competition and the costs of modernization have caught up with the business.

2000s-Despite strong consumer demand for SUVs that allowed for a boom in the early 2000s, the combination of rising fuel prices and debt eventually push General Motors, along with many other automakers, to the brink of bankruptcy. The company also sold off assets within its financial services, to create capital and remove liabilities.

2008-GM loses its status as the world’s largest car company to Toyota. Government issues emergency funds to rescue GM, Chrysler (FCAU) and Ford.

2009-Failing to revive itself, General Motors files for bankruptcy with over $100 billion in debt.

Eventually the automaker came out of bankruptcy, restructured, shrunk the size of the overall business, and continued operations.


One of the biggest controversies surrounding GM was its financial bailout and subsequent bankruptcy. With some accounts saying the company was over $150 billion in debt, one could question whether it was in any way appropriate to distribute bailout funds to the company. The argument could be made that the money simply delayed the inevitable.

In all, the federal government is reported to have lost over $11 billion from the bailout. On the flip side, the number of jobs and industry that were saved could be countered as a justifiable reason for the financial support. Regardless of where you stand, it’s certainly a dark moment in the history of General Motors.

What’s Happening in 2020?

Like most automakers, General Motors remains heavily reliant on the revenue that comes from truck/SUV sales. The imbalance between trucks, SUVs and crossovers vs. traditional cars has been so wide that the company has scaled back on the overall size of its traditional sedan offerings. While there is constant chatter these days about electric vehicles, the real cash within cars continues to reside in traditional pickup trucks. To that end, many automakers are at a confusing crossroad.

Outside of these big ticket vehicles, the overall auto sector has seen declining sales as it becomes much clearer that the auto cycle peaked a few years ago. It is likely that the continued financial strength of names like GM will go hand in hand with the strength of the U.S. economy.

The markets have never really regained trust for automakers, and General Motors’ shares trade at a low valuation relative to earnings. This isn’t out of the norm, as most car names outside of Tesla (TSLA) trade at low premiums. In a way it makes these types of stocks very easy to understand. They are inherently reactive to the ups and downs of their financial performance to the close price to earnings.