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GM needs a Transformers-like transformation

In town promoting the new Camaros, General Motors auto designer Jeff Perkins, left, and senior designer Humberto Ortiz lean on one of the muscle cars Tuesday outside the St. Pete Times Forum after a Tampa Rotary Club luncheon.

KATHLEEN FLYNN | Times

In town promoting the new Camaros, General Motors auto designer Jeff Perkins, left, and senior designer Humberto Ortiz lean on one of the muscle cars Tuesday outside the St. Pete Times Forum after a Tampa Rotary Club luncheon.

TAMPA — So I'm here at a Rotary Club luncheon at the St. Pete Times Forum where a platoon of General Motors executives, designers and public relations folks are on hand.

GM's in town in force to promote its new 2010 Camaro muscle cars just hitting GM area dealerships. GM stopped making the car about eight years ago, then recently reintroduced it.

GM auto designer Jeff Perkins shaped the new Camaro's built-for-speed-looking interior and now handles interior design for the Chevy's electric cars, including the Volt (due out in late 2010). He's speaking to the Rotary crowd about what's so cool about the look of "new" GM models.

It's been exactly 23 days since the legendary Detroit company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. But the timing is perfect. It is the eve of the much-anticipated and, for GM, presciently named movie Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen. The flick features Camaros and other GM cars that "transform" from vehicles to giant robots and back.

It's a marketing manager's dream opportunity to reach a younger mass audience. GM's showcasing a bright yellow V-6 and a black, manual transmission V-8 Camaro out in the Forum parking lot and, later, at a Ferman GM dealership and an AMC Brandon sneak preview of the movie.

GM, too, must transform from a stodgy business to a snap-to-attention organization that can persuade a lot more consumers to put GM's four surviving brands — Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC — on their personal shopping lists.

GM southeast region marketing manager Chuck Hipp points out the V-6 Camaro packs 300 horsepower yet cruises at 29 miles per gallon on the highway. Designer Perkins praises the vehicle's classic "Inferno Orange" color highlights and a dashboard inspired by the simplicity of Apple's iPod. GM senior designer Humberto Ortiz, discovered at GM de Mexico and recruited to GM Design Global Headquarters in Michigan, calls the Camaro "aspirational" — youth appealing — because a basic version can be had for about $29,000.

"People come up to me," says Hipp, a 23-year GM veteran, "and tell me they're pulling for GM. They look as us now as the underdog and want us to win."

Auto sales industrywide are in the tank, but GM sales this month look a bit brighter.

That's one hopeful sign. But there's no nastier competition than the auto business.

As GM pitches its heart out in Tampa, the company announces about 4,000 more of its salaried workers will lose their jobs by the end of the year. The same day, the federal government says it will lend $5.9 billion to Ford Motor Co. and about $2.1 billion to Nissan Motor Co. and Tesla Motors Inc. in a government-industry partnership to build green cars. And oil giant Exxon Mobil says it will partner with a batterymaker to sponsor a fleet of small cars.

Back at Tampa's Rotary luncheon, and just before GM's designer speaks, the room stands and sings the 1949 tune In the Good Old Summer Time complete with this famous lyric:

That she's your tootsie-wootsie in the good old summer time.

I'm not sure GM outshined its industry competitors on such a newsy Tuesday. But at least it's still in the game.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

GM needs a Transformers-like transformation 06/23/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 23, 2009 9:30pm]
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