As expected as it may have been, it was still unnerving to watch General Motors file bankruptcy papers on Monday. GM was the world's most popular automaker for decades before finally ceding the title to Toyota late in 2008. It was the country's largest employer for years too, peaking in 1979 with 618,365 workers. That's more people than live in Wyoming. It has fewer than 100,000 on its U.S. payroll today, yet it's hard to shake the image of GM as an icon of American manufacturing power.
Part of GM's problem, though, is that its brands also have come to symbolize inferior workmanship, second-tier technology and unimaginative design. Even as the company has improved the quality and value of its cars, the damage to its reputation has lingered like a dent that just couldn't be hammered out. So in a way, its trip through Bankruptcy Court is a chance for GM to make a formal, forceful break from the past as it also slashes its operations, cutting the cost of making and distributing vehicles.