1969 General Motors XP-512E and online auction journalism

Car of the Day #5: Is it a conspiracy or common sense?

1969 General Motors XP-512E and online auction journalism
Side profile of the GM XP 512E (sometimes called the ES-512)

Here’s how a conversation with me typically goes.

[Person mentions something about EVs…]

Me: I’m glad you’re taking a look at electric cars, what always gets me is how much better they’d be now if only automakers had taken them seriously back then. For decades, companies like General Motors used electric cars as a strange way to market themselves as progressive and futuristic.


Yeah, a great example is the XP 512E from 1969. General Motors built an entire suite of city runabouts that had either all-electric or hybrid powertrains. Back then, GM was one of the largest corporations on earth and had the resources to ensure its concepts could actually drive. The classic XP 512 family of cars had size and performance not too far off of more recent microcars like the well-received Citroën Ami and related Fiat 600 you can currently buy in Europe. 

The range of XP 512 -based machines from General Motors.

It looks kinda quirky, too…why haven’t I heard of this thing?

About a dozen reasons, but they did appear from time to time. In typical fashion, these environmentally-friendly concepts were regurgitated over the next few years with different graphics for various purposes. When the 1973 Oil Crisis hit and various agencies needed to look like they were doing something, the XP 512E reappeared in 1974 with NATO and EPA branding for the cameras. Imagine seeing a special 2024 NATO Edition Chevrolet today!

Former NATO Secretary General Luns driving the XP 512E in late 1974. Source: NATO

Wait, so you’re telling me that at the height of the muscle car era, when there were few vehicle regulations, when General Motors had a direct line to world politicians, and this massive oil crisis hits…this little electric XP 512E-thing was just…left on the shelf like it couldn’t be built?

Yeah. To us it may seem silly, but to a corporation building millions of internal combustion, body-on-frame machines typically between 15 – 19 ft long, pivoting its entire industrial apparatus to produce Mike Wazowski-shaped city cars in the hopes the Oil Crisis wouldn’t end would have been an insane gamble. Plus, we now know that General Motors was a good 15 years from serious financial strain; there was no incentive to sell vehicles that were fundamentally different from what they’d already invested in producing. That’s beside how they’d have to completely trash and rebuild their image, product lineups, and likely several parts suppliers from scratch…

I see what you’re saying. So the XP 512E is kind of like a science project that didn’t really go anywhere except to be shown off as an example of what GM could do.

Exactly. Concept cars are what automakers could do but likely won’t. It’s essentially a cost-effective way to do some marketing hype, let employees play with new technologies without the pressure of production, and allow designers to penguin pebble future design cues. That the XP 512E looks compelling today is with the benefit of hindsight, so long as you think electric cars aren’t a scam! 

Right? It’s kind of strange that with GM’s resources they couldn’t have just spun it off or sold the plans to another company willing to take the risk.

That’s a great point and examples of that have happened, though not in this case. What’s most surprising to me is that there was a time General Motors was so insurmountable it could cast off several unique concepts per year across its many divisions, how often its most promising concept cars were pushed off the turntable after a few months and discarded — if not destroyed outright.

How many of them were EVs?

So many. So, so many.

What could this XP 512E do, anyway? 

Actually, GMAuthority did a great writeup a few years ago detailing the gasoline, hybrid, and electric versions of the car — they reported that with an 84-volt Delco-Remy lead acid battery and DC Delco-Remy electric motor, it had a range of 58 miles (93 km) at a speed of 25 mph (40 kph). Charging happened with any 115-volt household outlet, and took roughly 7 hours to recharge from a nearly dead battery.

Ok, that’s really slow! But also — 1960s battery technology sounds terrible. Still, I can’t imagine how different things would have been if General Motors had fully transitioned to electric vehicles a few decades ago…

Member’s only content is opened up on Fridays! Please forward to a friend or share knowing the paywall has been turned off for this post. ;) 

Are auction descriptions peak car journalism?

Full disclosure: I used to work at RM Auctions and left just after RM Sotheby’s became a thing, and have no ill will to the auction industry — I share this information so you’re aware I have more exposure to the auction world than the average writer. More on this in a minute. -mb

Fresh out of journalism school, I remember being completely against any sort of influence from advertisers

A saying that doesn’t hold much water today is the aim for clear separation “between church and state” where reporters and advertisers working at the same publication do their best work while pretending the other doesn’t exist.

A few financial crisis ago, support for automotive ‘journalism’ in North America was affected greatly on the manufacturer side by both General Motors and Chrysler entering bankruptcy, plus storms like Dieselgate, Cash for Clunkers, and the vast waves of consolidation at that time that birthed the same powerful dealership groups that would soon shift the majority of their advertising spend from local newspapers’ classifieds sections to online portals. It became more common for automakers to skip auto shows in major markets altogether, moves affected everywhere by corporate mergers big and small. 

Through the 2000s and 2010s, an increasingly diverse group of freelancers and bloggers finally cracked open the treasure chest of media loaner cars and press trips, only to learn how little the job pays. (And how time-consuming admin and sales tasks are!)

At the same time, the overall quality of cars improved (bad for reviewers and hot takes), variations between vehicle powertrain combinations began to shrink while buyers — hoping to maximize value for money — doubled down on SUV-positive and clutch-negative options. This left many automotive writers who had formed their ideologies on Brock Yates books and Top Gear torrents indignant in the face of 34 cupholder crossovers, CVT transmissions, and early hybrid vehicles… all while hungry young bloggers busting their asses for little more than exposure took their places at press events. 

We now know that national, name-brand car publications survived because they had an insurmountable lead in audience size, but many newspaper automotive sections, entire mid-sized and smaller outlets without a viable (read: advertiser-friendly niche) were wiped out in the late 2000s, 2010s, and again through the 2020s. 

Since then, anyone who didn’t pivot to video content (or find a way to embed an ungodly amount of autoplay video advertising in their articles) has seen the value of their written content plummet from a few hundred dollars per story to a small fraction of that. 

So much money shifted into online (banner) and programmatic advertising that we’ve had time to witness the birth > life > heat death cycles of an untold number of entire portals (Yahoo! Autos, AOL Autos, Sympatico Autos, MSN Autos); member-focused social networks (Car Domain, DriveTribe), blogs (Jalopnik, WindingRoad); and investor-led comets like /Drive, Petrolicious, and CarThrottle.

Comment any I’ve missed at the bottom of the page ;)

Like many of my readers who are also creators, I was living through all of this for the first time. 

When I moved from the content world to the auction world in the fall of 2013, one of my responsibilities was in helping to re-evaluate our advertising and to invest more of the budget online. Shortly after, as soon as I saw the results of our banner ads — let me repeat: banner ads — in Bring A Trailer emails, I realized a new wave of automotive content was approaching. Why? A new generation of enthusiasts were reliably clicking on our should-have-been-ineffective auction ads at BaT and converting into buyers. (People fuckin’ love looking at and commenting on vehicles for sale.)

The format that’s come to dominate car content and earn millions for online auctions is…essentially a very detailed classified ad with a bidding system plugged in. 

If an auction writer makes a mistake, they might lose their job or tank an entire sale; if an automotive journalist makes mistakes, they’re freelancing for so many outlets so strapped for time and content that you’d be surprised how little anyone seems to care.

Pistonheads in the UK was a car forum. Now it has car auctions. Patina was an iOS app for car enthusiasts, then it was an online auction — and now it’s been bought out by Bonhams and is the platform for its online car auctions. Doug DeMuro was a YouTuber, now he does car auctions (Cars and Bids). Hagerty was one of the world’s largest collector car insurers and now…Marketplace, an online car auction, is one of Hagerty’s business units.

Bring a Trailer was a car blog about cars for sale on (quite often) Craigslist and eBay — now it’s the largest online auctions for collector vehicles. (I’d go blue in the face trying to include all of the other new online car auction companies so I won’t.)

In my professional lifetime, the most valuable written car content outside of best-selling books has flipped from the editorial section in newspapers to the classifieds: online car auctions need reams of it when representing collector-grade vehicles. 

To properly evaluate and accurately represent something for an audience, to report the truth, guess what? That’s awfully close to journalism. Sometimes, auction writers even — hold onto your Pilotis — see the vehicle in person and consult its condition, if not take it for a test drive. And instead of a convoluted rate structure, auction houses typically budget for written descriptions as part of the fees, and writers get paid.

If an auction writer makes a mistake, they might lose their job or tank an entire sale; if an automotive journalist makes mistakes, they’re freelancing for so many outlets so strapped for time and content that you’d be surprised how little anyone seems to care.

As long as the truth is respected and the creators are being paid in a timely manner, does it matter if an insurance company, YouTuber, online auction house or group of dipshit investors is carving off a percentage in the process? 

I care deeply about journalism: but even I’ll admit in many places there’s more regulation around selling cars at auction than there is around correctly reporting a story. 

Even if true, the above wouldn’t diminish the work of automotive journalists in the slightest; in fact, I hope it pushes you to seek out more trustworthy and diverse sources who hold themselves to a higher standard when so many others don’t.

Obviously, the difference between auction descriptions and journalism is that the former is about products and the latter is about people. It’s essential to be truthful and have a degree of empathy for buyers when writing about things for sale, but the auction writer’s job is to accurately represent the details surrounding a lot, not to report the facts that affect our lives.

The two coexist for now but I wouldn’t bet against another format shift or external event to send the automotive content world into another period of turmoil. 

On top of all this, there is no shared code of ethics for this content; there is no professional organization to certify automotive reporters and no union to help creators negotiate and earn a fair wage whether interviewing executives, reporting on the last Formula 1 Grand Prix, or writing about a mint 1995 Pontiac Grand Prix headed to auction. 

Publications may have policies in place, editors may have standards to uphold, and writers may have their credibility at stake — but the automotive industry and real-world drivers alike have consistently steered their support away from outlets that adhere too closely to the principles of journalism.

Thanks, as always, for reading. -M

Look for the next Car of the Day on Monday, January 8! Have a good weekend.