On Tuesday, November 9, 2010, Mr. Goodwrench, trusted friend of the American driver, passed on, a victim of radical restructuring with attendant rebranding. The famed mechanic, a popular symbol for General Motors' dealer service departments, follows longtime companion Rusty Jones, aftermarket undercoating icon, who died of aggravated bankruptcy in 1988.
Mr. Goodwrench was born in 1974 as part of an advertising campaign to tout the high quality of GM's dealer-based service departments. Originally portrayed as a slope-shouldered, balding mechanic, Goodwrench morphed over the years, transforming in the early 1980's into a brawny working man with an impressive helmet of hair. Later, he was briefly portrayed by a then-unknown Tim Allen before assuming his final form as a blue-skinned young man with a flip haircut and rugby shirt. Changing appearance aside, Mr. Goodwrench was designed to carry a consistent message: for buyers, he was supposed to symbolize reliability and a high level of service, regardless of whether they owned a Cadillac or a Chevy.
This isn't the first time Mr. Goodwrench disappeared. In 1996, GM flirted with political correctness, dropping the "Mr." and rebranding their service department as GM Goodwrench Service Plus. Still, the Mr. Goodwrench monicker soldiered on: when Space Shuttle astronauts undertook repair work on the Hubble telescope, they described themselves as "Mr. Goodwrench." More notably, when the Federal government bailed out GM, many pundits began referring to Barack Obama as "President Goodwrench."
It isn't hard to see why Mr. Goodwrench proved so durable. While the retail landscape is littered with hundreds of adorable characters selling everything from breakfast cereal to oven cleaner, the auto industry has always trailed behind when it comes to cute pitchmen. In fact, apart from GM's trusted mechanic and the undercoating icon Rusty Jones, the car mascot pantheon is pretty empty.
Death by Rebranding
Mr. Goodwrench's popularity may have a contributing cause of his death, as it interfered with a rebranding effort. A symbol of consistency across the GM brand landscape, the mechanic was a visual demonstration of the link between disparate GM brands. In the 1970's, this was useful, as it indicated to car purchasers that, regardless of the cost of their car, the dealer's service center would be top notch.
Since its 2009 restructuring, however, GM has tried to emphasize the differences between its car lines. After dropping the ailing Pontiac, Hummer and Saturn marques, it is working to develop unique identities for Buick, GMC, Cadillac and Chevrolet. Consequently, Mr. Goodwrench will be replaced by four new lines: Buick Certified Service, GMC Certified Service, Cadillac Certified Service and Chevrolet Certified Service.
Land of Cast-Off Advertising Macots
While Mr. Goodwrench's banishment to the land of cast-off advertising mascots is sure to be unpleasant, it won't be lonely. Some commercial pitchmen, like Ronald McDonald and Betty Crocker, have managed to weather the decades with minimal wear-and-tear, others have either disappeared or have transformed so sharply that they are all-but-unrecognizable.
The most interesting changes tend to be those mascots who have become culturally repulsive. For example, Aunt Jemima, while still around, has been radically transformed from her racist roots to a become a liberated symbol of energetic feminism (and pancakes). As columnist and blogger James Lileks notes, others, like the casually abusive "Mr. Coffee Nerves," or the strangely cannibalistic pork pitchman "Cudahy Curly" were abandoned entirely.
So what does the future hold for Mr. Goodwrench? Barring a massive backlash, GM will likely keep the mechanic buried for the foreseeable future. However, given the mascot's cultural penetration and the marketing value of nostalgia, it seems likely that we haven't seen the last of Mr. Goodwrench. And, even on the off chance that he doesn't return to GM, we'll always have the print ads and Colbert commercials of yesteryear.