Al Rothenberg has covered the auto beat since the '50s and interviewed GM's legendary, somewhat eccentric pioneer many times. Here are his recollections, up close and personal.
Founder William C. Durant, financial genius Alfred P. Sloan and numerous other prominent leaders dominate the history ofCorp. But the most fascinating figure of them all might well have been Charles Stewart Mott.
Head of one of the world's largest foundations, owner of banks, water works, department stores and for years GM's largest shareholder, Mr. Mott also was described in a national news magazine as the "Skinflint of Flint."
It was a moniker Mr. Mott did not relish. He was extremely proud of his philanthropic activities, although an aide once confided that "If he didn't give it away, the Feds would take it in taxes."
Mr. Mott at one time owned more than 2 million GM shares during which its dividend was $6 a share, assuring he'd never have to go on welfare.
The thrifty capitalist did dole out his wealth lavishly. He even surprised Frank Manley, the head of his foundation, with a public announcement of a $106 million gift for a hospital at the University of Michigan during the '60s.
Mr. Mott's fortune took off after he moved his axle-producing operations from Utica, NY, to Flint in 1906 at Mr. Durant's urging. Mr. Mott never took money for his company but first gave 49% of Westin-Mott in exchange for GM stock and the balance of 51% in 1913. There were stories that Mr. Mott never sold any shares, but he told this writer that he needed funds to save a bank during the 1930s Depression.
Born in 1875, Mr. Mott consistently boosted Flint, his adopted home town. He served three times as mayor and, besides his other holdings, financed and built the Mott Foundation Building in downtown Flint. His office on the 16th floor employed about six people. There was only one telephone line and no air conditioning, except for a window unit the office manager purchased with his own funds.
The carpeting was a patchwork composition, and when it got too badly worn Mr. Mott would bring in pieces for replacement. He reportedly never pitched a paper clip and saved all of his incoming mail for scratch sheets. The lighting was subpar.
Mr. Mott drove to work every weekday morning in his little rearengine Chevy Corvair, always parked at an outside lot -- even in winter when he was already in his early 90s.
The drive from Applewood, his Flint estate, was short and simple. So was his lifestyle at Applewood. Although he gave a huge hunk of his estate for the Flint Junior College (now Mott Community College), his penchant for thrift persisted. A young student paid $100 a month to rent his gatehouse residence.
The philanthropist's own bedroom was bare of most modern conveniences with the exception of a black and white television set his fourth wife, Ruth, gave him. The bed was a Hollywood type cot with no headboard. Diagonally across the room were floor-to-ceiling shelves obviously hand-built by Mr. Mott with the edges badly in need of smoothing. A three-legged card table with papers piled on top struggled to stand erect.
On one rare occasion he went for a snack in the Applewood refrigerator and was upset to see a 30-Watt bulb in use. Legend has it Mr. Mott took it out and inserted a 15-Watt bulb.
The estate's basement was loaded with honorary degrees, citations, memberships in Rotary and other clubs and a single bowling alley with hand-set pins that probably hadn't been used for generations. His home secretary was asked about the cost involved in receiving these degrees. Her response: "For a degree, he would swim the ocean."
Mr. Mott didn't believe in wasting a penny wherever his activities took him. He kept a diary at his home that contained everything from his daily doings to baseball scores and weather reports.
In 1958 when GM elected a new chairman, Frederic Donner, Mr. Mott and the other directors were invited to a formal reception at New York's University Club. When Mr. Mott began walking from his lower Manhattan hotel he was wearing a dark brown suit. Spotting a cigar store where they sold black, clip-on bow ties, he put one on and wrote in his diary: "I doubt if anyone could have told the difference."
The Flint Journal is the repository (several drawers) of Mr. Mott's career. He was married four times. His first wife died of natural causes, another committed suicide. The third wife was a Detroit golf magazine editor. The marriage lasted six months, and the only reference to it in the newspaper's files is an old piece of cardboard giving the date of the wedding and the demise of the marriage.
Mr. Mott died in 1973 at the age of 97.