January 18, 2009, marks the final day of a weeklong auction in which auto giant General Motors (GM) sells off historic cars from its Heritage Collection. GM sold around 200 vehicles at the Scottsdale, Arizona, auction, including a 1996 Buick Blackhawk concept car for $522,500, a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro ZL-1 COPO Coupe for $319,000 and a 1959 Chevrolet Corvette convertible for $220,000. Other items included a 1998 Cadillac Brougham, which was built for the pope. (That vehicle was blessed by the pope but never used because of safety issues; it sold for more than $57,000.) Most were preproduction, development, concept or prototype cars.
The vehicles came from GM’s Heritage Center, an 81,000 square foot facility in Sterling, Michigan, that houses hundreds of cars and trucks from GM’s past, along with documents chronicling the company’s history and other artifacts and “automobilia.” Rumors spread that the financially troubled GM was selling off its entire fleet of historic vehicles, but that was not the case. As The New York Times reported shortly after the January auction: “Much has been made of the timing of the sale coinciding with G.M.’s current situation, but G.M. is simply doing the same thing that many large-scale collectors and museums regularly do in culling certain pieces from their collections. This was hardly a wholesale dumping of G.M.’s heritage.”
Nevertheless, at the time of the January 2009 auto auction, GM was facing enormous financial difficulties. In June of that same year, the company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. At the time, the automaker reported liabilities of $172.8 billion and assets of $82.3 billion, making it the fourth-biggest U.S. bankruptcy in history. Bankruptcy was a move once considered unthinkable for GM, which was founded in 1908 and became a giant of the U.S. economy in the 20th century. GM pursued a strategy of selling a vehicle “for every purse and purpose,” in the words of Alfred Sloan, who became president of the company in 1923 and resigned as chairman in 1956. By its peak in 1962, GM produced 51 percent of all the cars in the U.S. However, by the late 1960s, GM had begun a slow, decades-long decline that critics charged was due, in part, to the company’s failure to innovate quickly enough. In 2008, GM was surpassed by Japan-based Toyota as the world’s top-selling maker of cars and trucks, a title the American automaker had held since the early 1930s.