GM’s loan of vehicles puts Olympics on wheels

It is probably the biggest motor pool outside the Canadian Armed Forces, and for the next few weeks it will be ferrying athletes, officials and VIPs around the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

VANCOUVER — It is probably the biggest motor pool outside the Canadian Armed Forces, and for the next few weeks it will be ferrying athletes, officials and VIPs around the Vancouver Winter Olympics.

A fleet of 4,600 Olympic-badged vehicles supplied by General Motors, from pickup trucks and SUVs to luxurious Cadillacs, has become a familiar sight on the streets of Vancouver and Whistler and on the roads in between.

Even more surprising than the size of the fleet is the fact it exists at all, given GM’s financial meltdown in 2008-09. The technically bankrupt, government-supported automaker decided to maintain its partnership deal with the Vancouver Organizing Committee, cutting elsewhere instead, says Tom Laurie, GM Canada’s manager of Olympic partnership.

“It was that important,” says Laurie. “We had the ability to do it and we felt strongly we were one of the few that probably could do it and fulfil all the transportation requirements because it takes a lot of different vehicles, a lot of different products.”

“We were committed, we felt strongly about it, we found a way to do it and we really never wavered.”

GM’s total financial commitment was about $53 million, including what’s probably the single largest loan of vehicles to an event in Canada, other services, cash and support for the Own the Podium program.

The automaker actually handed over 6,000 cars and trucks, starting in the fall of 2005 as organizers ramped up preparation for the Games.

The lion’s share have been 2009 and 2010 model-year vehicles delivered since last fall.

They range from Chevrolet Malibu and Buick LaCrosse sedans to Sierra and Silverado pickups used during venue construction, SUVs like Chevy Tahoe and GMC Yukons, crossovers such as the Chevy Equinox, GMC Terrain and Buick Enclave, as well as Cadillac models such as the new CTS wagon and SRX crossover.

Some 750 vehicles in the fleet are hybrids, a mix of Malibu, Tahoe, Yukon, Sierra and Silverado models.

And others have alternate- or flex-fuel capability.

GM also has eight hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles that will operate during the Games and plans to show two pre-production Chevy Volt electric cars, which go on sale at the end of this year.

While the trucks will be doing some heavy-duty work at venues, most of the vehicles, with their distinctive VANOC decal on the doors, will be used by staff or to shuttle athletes, visiting officials and VIPs.

Laurie says some are being doled out to other countries’ Olympic teams, as well as sponsors and the host broadcasters, CTV and NBC.

He says it’s also safe to say the higher-end cars like the Caddies will be reserved to chauffeur top officials such as International Olympic Committee chairman Jacques Rogge, sponsor and media executives and other international celebrities.

Those vehicles, some with as little as eight weeks on the road and 3,000 kilometres on their odometers, will start coming back to GM as soon as the Olympic flame is doused on Feb. 28. VANOC will keep 1,600 to use during the Paralympic Games, which end March 21.

About 3,300 American-spec vehicles will be shipped to the United States for resale. Trying to sell the entire fleet in Canada would seriously distort the marketplace, says Laurie.

“We probably couldn’t absorb them, and if we tried to we would probably have some serious depreciation or deterioration of the price,” he says. “You just can’t take that many cars back in a marketplace like this that fast.

“The ones that we have in Canada by and large they will be sold into the Greater Vancouver area.”

Not all of them, though. The hybrids will probably go to dealers across Canada and some of the others might also make it east of the Rockies.

“I’ve had customers as far away as from Quebec put their hands up and say ‘hey I’d like to buy one of the Olympic cars,”’ says Laurie.

The vehicles, with popular option packages, will be sold to GM dealers at a price based on a set formula for fleet resales, and Laurie believes they’ll represent a good value for consumers.

All have an Olympic medallion — either on the centre door pillar or fender — with Vancouver’s multi-coloured inukshuk symbol and the iconic rings.

“There is some cachet that these vehicles are in fact Olympic vehicles,” Laurie says, though dealers won’t be able to say if any particular car carried a gold-medal winning athlete.

Laurie points out that besides VANOC’s sizable staff, there are about 46,000 volunteers working at the Games.

“If you want the biggest souvenir possible, I guess a car is probably it,” he chuckles.