Witness to automotive history: recollections of those who've lived it, close up and personal

In our continuing celebration of the U.S. automotive Centennial, WAW tracked down nearly 30 industry notables who were close-up witnesses to the industry's history. Part I of this special coverage ran in our May issue. Contributing editor Al Rothenberg conducted the following interviews.GM's Lloyd ReussLloyd Reuss, 59, served General Motors Corp. from 1957 until his retirement in 1993. He headed Buick,

Rothenberg, Al

June 1, 1996

12 Min Read
WardsAuto logo

In our continuing celebration of the U.S. automotive Centennial, WAW tracked down nearly 30 industry notables who were close-up witnesses to the industry's history. Part I of this special coverage ran in our May issue. Contributing editor Al Rothenberg conducted the following interviews.

GM's Lloyd Reuss

Lloyd Reuss, 59, served General Motors Corp. from 1957 until his retirement in 1993. He headed Buick, was chief engineer of Buick and Chevrolet, was group vice president over car and truck operations and became president in 1990.

"I became chief engineer of Buick in 1975 following one of the worst sales years in history. By 1980, I was general manager, and in 1983, the division set an all-time sales record. It still stands. We also put in Buick City (in Flint). So those were the high points . . .

Buick City was difficult. The foundry had been closed. We convinced the corporation to invest in a transmission torque-converter plant. That was the start of a turnaround. GM plans were to close the Buick manufacturing facilities. We went around the world to look at the most efficient plants. We brought in suppliers to locate in Buick City. At the same time, we worked to make the Buick V-6 `even firing.' It was a rough design. The engine has been winning awards ever since.

One difficult aspect of Buick City was that we made handshake agreements with the local UAW chairman. He was very progressive. Before the plant was in operation, he was no longer chairman and we had differences of opinion over what we had agreed upon. But that was all straightened out . . .

The boldest decision we made was the first major downsizing of the entire product line in 1977. The first round of downsizing was well received by the public. Then, in 1986, we began to reduce the size of the E-cars a second time--the Riviera, Eldorado, Toronado. The reception was terrible. I was at Buick at the time. There was a tremendous loss of market share. It seemed like an easy decision at the time because the earlier downsizing was so successful . . ."

GM's Alex Mair

Alex C. Mair, 75, headed GM's Pontiac and GMC Truck divisions during a career that began in a Chevrolet engine plant in 1939. He retired in 1986 as group vice president-technical staff.

"Loyalty in my time was fantastic at GM. only one time did I consider leaving. Henry Ford II had promised Clara Ford (his grandmother) that Ford would come back and beat Chevrolet. During the Korean War, Ford tried to hire people away from Chevrolet, and I was asked to meet with Henry Ford II and two other executives. I was working for Chevrolet Aviation Engine in Tonawanda, NY. I met them at the Dearborn Inn for dinner. Ford was called away at the last minute and did not attend. They made an incredible financial offer and said they would count my GM years into the Ford system. The Ford job was several levels above my GM position. I went home and mulled the offer over in my mind and concluded not to leave . .

I was director of engineering for Chevrolet after 33 years with the division when I was named general manager of GMC Truck & Coach. We were introducing a new bus, the RTS, on a Thursday in 1975 at a dinner in New orleans when I got a telephone call from the president, Pete Estes, telling me to take over Pontiac the following Monday morning. I told him we were just introducing a new bus and that I didn't want to leave. He countered: `You don't have a choice . . .'

"I had just three years at Pontiac when Pete Estes called again and said 'A1, you're running the whole Tech Center.' I didn't think I even got started at either division."

GM's Chuck Jordan

Charles M. Jordan, now 68, was only the fourth person to head GM's design staff; he was named vice president in 1986. He joined GM in 1949 as a junior engineer. At various times, he headed design for GM's Adam Opel AG and Cadillac and exterior design for Buick, Olds and Cadillac. He retired in 1992.

"As long as I could remember, there never was a question of what I wanted to be: an automobile designer. It never did seem like work. It was always exciting. My first assignment was the Aerotrain for GM's Electromotive Div. Then, Harley Earl, the design boss, assigned me to design a crawler tractor for Euclid . . .

Bill Mitchell, who succeeded Earl, called me over and said, 'Listen kid. If you're ever going to get any place in this business, you have to do cars.' Before that, I was doing trucks when nobody wanted to go to the truck studio. It was a lot different back in 1955. I did the Chevrolet Cameo Carrier, a pickup truck...

I went to Cadillac as chief designer in 1959 and finished up the '59 model with the big fins. They were tall, but you have to understand that we were breaking out of a chrome-plated, heavy-bumper era and all of a sudden we thought we could bring a flair to this whole industry. We probably overcooked in 1959. Before the car came out, we already chopped the fins down for 1960 . . .

We did get an award in 1977 for the downsized Chevrolet Caprice. The newer Caprice (introduced in 1991 and phased out this fall) never did catch fire except as a police car or taxi. It is always disappointing when people don't like what you do. You can never please everyone, but you try to design a car you believe in . . .

I can't recall any decisions we made I'd like to change, but the downsizing in the '70s to improve fuel economy was a cultural shock. We didn't do our job well, but we had to do a 180-degree flip-flop. We had to go from longer, lower, wider to shorter, narrower, higher . . . that was tough. It took a while, but we finally learned how to do it."

Chrysler's Jack Withrow

John D. Withrow Jr., 63, served Chrysler for 33 years, ending his career there in 1988 as executive V.R-product development.

"We went through very tough times in 1979 when I was engineering vice president. We planned to launch the K-car in 1980 as a 1981 model. I was on vacation at Hilton Head (SC) in the spring of 1979 and was called back because we were financially strapped. Half the engineering staff was laid off. We just had to keep the K-car going. We worked awfully, awfully long hours, and we not only tried to keep the best people but also those with critical skills. The launch went well, but it was tough because there are always a lot of last minute things . . .

The greatest accomplishment in my career was bringing out the minivan in 1984. I was product planning V.P. at the start and V.R-engineering on the launch. Thank God for Hal Sperlich, creator of the minivan . . .

One addition at Chrysler I did not like was the voice reminder to tell the driver to wear the seat belt or to report a 'door ajar.' The thought was not bad, but the execution was. It was a nuisance and a pest."

Chrysler's Sid Jeffe

Sidney D. Jeffe, 69, left Chrysler in 1982 as vice president in charge of engineering and research after a 32-year career.

"Everyone, including Lee Iacocca, told me I was doing a great job. To this day, I don't know why I was fired. It may have been a case of the Ford people not wanting any foxes in the henhouse. So nearly all of the Chrysler people were gone. But, we were being complimented day in and day out by Iacocca on the products we were creating, the K car and the minivan . . . . The toughest battle I had was whether the upcoming minivans (production started in fall '83) should be front- or rear-wheel drive. The truck guys wanted rear, and the car guys wanted front, and so did I. Harold Sperlich, the vice president for product planning, agreed with me. So, that's the way it was . . .

A challenging period was the '60s when I became executive engineer in charge of powerplant and chassis. We were plowing new ground for emissions and safety regulations. Working with the government was a total nightmare. They had no real sense of what we could or couldn't do. We were making decisions on things we really didn't have a lot of knowledge on. We tried lean-burn engines to cut emissions, and we finally developed our own catalytic converter. The Feds decreed it should last 50,000 miles. We never dreamed it would . . ."

(After leaving Chrysler, Mr. Jeffe spent 10 years with Sheller-Globe, headed the Transportation Research Center of ohio and was a professor at ohio State University.)

GM's Bob Lund

Robert D. Lund, 76, headed both Chevrolet and Pontiac in a career that spanned nearly 40 years. He retired in 1985.

"My toughest decision was having to leave Chevrolet and go to the corporation as sales and marketing vice president. I retired two years later; I liked running a division and being a hands-on guy. I was head of Chevy from 1974 to 1982 and Cadillac in 1973 and 1974. We set all kinds of records . . .

A great year for Chevy was 1973 when we sold over 3 million cars and trucks for the first time. The very best year was 1978 when we sold 3.7 million vehicles. It won't happen again because the market is so split up now.

We had one difficult time at Cadillac. Sales dropped and I was told to shut the plant down. I agreed to do it but didn't do it. A GM corporate executive called me back two days later and yelled, 'Damn it, I told you to shut that plant down. Shut it down.' So I did. We were flatter than a pail of water and we came up with a slogan: 'We believe.' We had that printed on every piece of paper we had. We sold over 300,000 cars (at Cadillac) in 1973."

Ford's Don Frey

Donald N. Frey, 73, left Ford in 1968 as group vice president for product development and earlier headed the Ford Div. He became chairman of Bell & Howell in Chicago and is now a professor at Northwestern University.

"I wanted to put the first set of disc brakes in an American car in the mid-'60s. It cost more money, about $20 per car. I figured the bean-counters would catch up with me, and they did. A friendly controller suggested we price it into the power-brake option. We put it on the Thunderbird, and the only way you could buy the car was with the power disc brake option. We never had a complaint . . .

I wanted a radial tire but none of the U.S. producers would make one. They told me to go to hell. I went to (France's) Michelin. Henry Ford II spotted me a few months after the Michelins went on the Lincoln and sat down at my lunch table. I knew I was in trouble. He demanded 'Who put those #&*#%@@ French tires on my Lincoln?' He ordered them off. I knew I only had one chance to sell him on the radials: long life, high-speed safety, no owner replacements. He said he would call the domestic tiremakers. Harvey Firestone Jr. called within a few days and offered to supply the radials."

EPA's Bill Ruckelshaus

William D. Ruckelshaus was named by President Nixon to be the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on Dec. 1, 1970. He held that post until April 1973 when he became FBI director. He returned as head of EPA in 1983 under President Reagan and served two years. He is now chairman of Houston-based Browning-Ferris Industries Inc., a waste-disposal management firm.

"I was an assistant to John Mitchell, the attorney general, and he recommended me to head the new EPA, which was created out of 15 federal agencies. our first-year budget was nearly a billion dollars. Much earlier, I had been in the Indiana Attorney General's office and represented the State Board of Health, which had responsibility for pollution programs.

We had early problems. Thank God I was only 36 and didn't know what I was doing. It was a tremendous challenge; these agencies were spread all over the country. We inherited a Health, Education and Welfare agency to regulate pesticides and another from Agriculture to promote them. We put them both in the same building and let them fight it out . . .

"I'll bet I spent 60% of my time regulating the auto industry in my first EPA term and only about 5% the second time. originally, it was a huge issue and,the automobile companies were terribly concerned over what the new agency was going to do. Congress had given it five years to meet air pollution standards for co, HC and NOx. Congress also said they could seek a sixth year . . .

Most of the domestics were represented by vice presidents, but the Japanese sent chief executives. Honda sent its president and four aides. Every time I asked a question, they would huddle, jabber away and only reply 'No' or 'Yes.' The Honda guy testified he could meet the standards. I asked him how he could do it when the domestics could not. He said 'If GM, Ford and Chrysler will come to Japan, I'll show them.' The Americans were furious. By 1975 we had the catalytic converter, essentially what we ordered in the hearing . . .

It wasn't just the industry that was upset. My aunt told me she couldn't accelerate fast enough to get through a green light and couldn't climb a hill because of the technology I had ordered on her car."

Subscribe to a WardsAuto newsletter today!
Get the latest automotive news delivered daily or weekly. With 5 newsletters to choose from, each curated by our Editors, you can decide what matters to you most.

You May Also Like