During my half-century of reporting and press relations in the automotive industry, I've managed to be involved in setting fire to the General Motors Milford (MI) Proving Ground, nearly drowning a six-figure Dodge prototype in the Pacific Ocean, losing a $1,000-a-week account for my newspaper, and giving up my beach shoes to the chairman and chief executive officer of the Chrysler Corp. I also toiled for three publications that have long since perished -- The Cleveland News, Cleveland Press and Look Magazine.

In my first year (1963) with Look, we rented a small plane at Flint, MI, and hired six female models to ride in a Buick convertible. The photographer was in the plane and I was on the ground with a two-way communicator. The plane prop severed a high tension Detroit Edison wire, caught fire and so did the grass. The live wire missed the Buick and six girls. The plane landed safely.

The Pacific near-disaster was that same year off San Mateo, CA. The photographer kept shooting as the tide rolled in. When we had to get out, the front left tire went flat. We literally pushed the car on planks to save it.

The Cleveland Press was running used-car ads for the Cadillac distributor. My story in 1962 disclosed the opening of a Cadillac zone sales office and the reduction of the distributorship to a dealer status. The story was accurate but a few years early. The ad account was cancelled.

Chrysler staged its 1960 press preview in Miami Beach. Guests were issued wooden shoes. The chairman, Tex Colbert, must have had large feet because PR people were frantically seeking an oversized pair. Mine may have qualified. I also covered hurricane Donna at that same preview.

I had an entertaining interview with GM President Edward N. Cole during the early '70s on the Clean Air Act. The PR man on the scene fell asleep. I should have known better than to work on a Friday afternoon.

What follows are personal recollections by industry executives who were prominent during my time. Dave Smith did the Bob Hefty interview. Sadly, both Bob and Zora Arkus-Duntov of Corvette fame died in April, only a few days after we interviewed them.

Ford's Red Poling

Harold A. (Red) Poling, now 70, was Ford Motor Co. chairman from 1990 until his retirement in 1994. Previously he served as vice chairman, president, executive vice president-North American Automotive Operations and president and chairman of Ford of Europe...

"I took over NAAO in 1980. I'll never forget it. We were losing billions of dollars. We had to take sharp action to reduce our costs. We were in serious trouble. Fortunately, Chrysler got all of the (poor) publicity at the time. We were not far behind. We had to reduce our work force over 20% and that was very painful. I didn't sleep well at night. We had to close plants. The high point I will remember most was 1983 when we turned from red to black for the first time in 16 quarters. The impact on the organization was fantastic...

In early 1974 when I was in Europe, right after the 1973 energy crisis, we were on short, three-day work-weeks in England. I remember sitting in my office on a Friday. For lights, I had a lamp and a battery. There was no heat. I froze. This was winter, very cold and very dark...

Seems like the company was always cutting costs when things were bad and putting them back in when things were good. It just seemed to be a non-ending situation. I committed to myself that I would try to do it differently if I could. I came up with a program in Europe to reduce our break-even point to 60%, a continuous cost-reduction program. I needed the support of top management that we would not be subject to the same arbitrary reductions as the rest of Ford. I got it from Henry Ford II, Lee Iacocca and Philip Caldwell. It paid off. We had three record years of profits...

I had to make a difficult decision when I was asked to become the chairman at age 64 and serve beyond normal retirement age. Bill (William Clay) Ford came to me and said, `I'd like you to stay on, but I wonder why you would?' We knew we were going into a difficult economic period. I told him that everything I have I owed to Ford Motor Co. and if I can help I would. I talked with my wife, Marian. You know it's hectic at the top. There's three hours of paperwork at home every night and six on the weekend, except board weekends when it's the whole weekend. You have no time for yourself. But she was supportive--perhaps a little reluctantly--but supportive. Actually, it was quite a surprise to me. I was on my way to Australia when the chairman, Don Petersen, called me and told me that the board would like me to stay on...

I had a finance background but I knew and loved cars, replaced pistons and rings with my father, took racing courses. Any corporate leader who focuses 100% on his background is going to fail."

Chrysler's Hal Sperlich

Harold K. Sperlich, 66, joined Ford shortly after earning an MBA degree at the University of Michigan in 1961. He was elected a Ford vice president in 1970 and was fired by Henry Ford II. At Chrysler, he created the minivan and led the 1970s development of the K-car that saved the company. He left as president in June 1988. By that time he had all the advanced engineering and styling completed on the highly successful LH lines.

"If Henry Ford II had accepted my minivan concept, Chrysler would not exist. The minivan is the backbone of Chrysler today...

The K-car had to be approved by John Riccardo, chairman before Iacocca arrived at Chrysler. It was a monumental program and America's first front-wheel-drive compact car. Although Chrysler was in terrible financial shape in 1978, the K-car design made it relatively easy to meet the (federal) Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards. The K-car also provided the cash flow that let the company get on its feet, even before the government bailout with the loan guarantee...

At Ford, I was program manager on the first Mustang and headed the development of the front-wheel drive Fiesta with a transverse engine. That became the Mercury Bobcat...

I was shocked when Ford fired me because I did have an outstanding record. Both Iacocca and I were pushing him (HFII) to do things that were not on his agenda. He was the chairman and I treated him with respect. Obviously, he treated me shabbily at the end."

(Mr. Sperlich is now with Delco Remy America, supplier of electrical components.)

GM's Jim Roche

James M. Roche, now 89, was known as GM's "gentleman" chairman, a post he held from 1967 until retiring in 1972. Earlier he had been GM president and Cadillac's general manager.

"The highest point of my career was when Cadillac hired me at its retail store in Chicago in 1927. It turned out to be a wonderful opportunity in a growing industry...

About two weeks after I became president in 1965, the chairman and I had to testify before the Senate's Kefauver Committee on safety regulations. It wasn't a low point for me but it wasn't a very friendly atmosphere. We had all kinds of problems. The government was trying to remake the industry and it became a political football to some extent. Then came the environmental problems and emission controls. I think we made great progress. GM and the industry did what they could do within the state of the art...

One of the most trying times was when I had to apologize to Ralph Nader before the Ribicoff Committee. (GM's legal section had hired a detective to follow Mr. Nader after his mid-'60s attacks on the safety of the Chevrolet Corvair). First of all, we had great difficulty in getting the facts on what really happened. Secondly, we had to decide if we should step up to it or what other recourse we had. I came to the conclusion that there was enough smoke and that I had better step up to it."

Ford's Don Petersen

Donald E. Petersen's career with Ford Motor Co. exceeded 40 years, including five years as president and five years as chairman. Now 69, he retired in 1990.

"The best of times were the '80s when the evidence grew at Ford that people were changing substantially in how they worked together, away from an autocratic approach to the corporate hierarchy. They seemed more willing to bring others into the decision-making process. We saw more of a sense of trust...

I got Henry Ford II to come out of retirement in 1984 to talk to a worldwide management meeting in Dearborn. He spoke about the new values and guiding principles of the company. He gave them a resounding vote of approval and said to me, `Well Pete, I hope I gave your principles a real sendoff.' That was a big moment for me...

In the '60s, I was product planning manager on Mustang. Hal Sperlich and I wanted a sporty car and not a sports car at a good price. We felt that the Renault Dauphine 2 + 2 was doing well, even though the quality was lousy. Chevrolet's Corvair Monza also was selling. It took a long time to get approval for Mustang. Mr. Ford didn't think it was very exciting. It did have the old Falcon understructure but new sheet metal....

Do I have any regrets? Sure, you regret decisions you have made on people. That's always difficult. I ordered a pullout in South Africa. The pressure was huge. Ford was trying to improve the quality of life for the people. We should have stayed because Ford is now trying to get back in."

GM's Zora Arkus-Duntov

Zora Arkus-Duntov, who died in late April at age 86 shortly after being interviewed, was the father of Corvette. He turned what was a humdrum sporty car into the high performance sports car Corvette remains today during his 22 years (1953-'75) with GM and Chevrolet.

"I can't say I was ever content with my job. It was a constant matter of doing things better. In 1953, Chevrolet was losing its youth market to Ford and Ed Cole, who headed Chevrolet and provided the division with muscle cars. That was the beginning of a revolution at GM...

Corvette was created before I was hired. I saw it at a GM Motorama in New York in 1953. I wrote Cole about the beauty of the design but told him that the engine stinks. I was offered a job, asked for $14,000 and settled for $12,000, plus bonus and benefits...

In 1960, I designed a camshaft to improve horsepower. That year we came out with the 409 cubic inch V-8, and it was available on the standard cars as well as police and taxi sedans. We had a 409 Impala that really took off. We sold 160,000 of them that first year...

Only 700 Corvettes were sold in 1953, but that was the first year. We delivered 4,000 in 1954 but went back to 700 in 1955. I had to convince Mr. Cole to keep the car and warned him that Ford would come out with a sports car if we didn't. I was also concerned about the morale of the workers...

Harley Earl (GM's famed first designer) invited me to his staff meeting and told them `If you have a problem with the instrument panel, Duntov is the man to see.' In 1956 the Corvette was restyled with a permanent top...

Bill Mitchell, who succeeded Harley Earl, designed a 1963 Corvette and insisted on a dividing strip the length of the roof. I thought it blocked rear visibility and screamed `Move it, get it out.' Mitchell overruled me with Cole's support. After the first prototype, Mitchell told me `You are right'. The 1964 model came out without the stripe."

AMC's Roy Chapin

Roy D. Chapin Jr., chairman and chief executive officer of American Motors Corp. from 1967 until 1977, joined AMC in 1954 when the corporation was formed with the merger of Nash and Hudson. He gave up the CEO title in late 1977, but stayed as chairman until he retired in October 1978. His father founded the Hudson Motor Car Co.

"Perhaps the easiest decision I ever made was the purchase of Jeep from Kaiser in 1970. I tried to buy it when George Romney (later Michigan governor) and Roy Abernethy were running AMC. Romney and Edgar Kaiser couldn't get along. I was running the international operations under Abernethy and I was following Jeep around. When they put up a plant, I followed with a Rambler plant because it worked like a charm. Where Jeep was, there were roads and gasoline. Abernethy didn't go for the idea and the first thing I did when I became chairman and got a little money was to buy Jeep. We got it for a song, about $75 million...

The toughest time was when our president, Bill Luneburg, and I took over. We were out of money and we had to do something to overcome the immediate problems. We had no time to think about long-range problems. Obviously, we managed to solve immediate considerations...

Before I became CEO, it was decided to put the Marlin sporty model on a large Ambassador chassis. Dick Teague, the designer, and I thought it looked a lot better on the smaller Rambler chassis. In retrospect, I wish we had insisted on the Rambler because the Ambassador spoiled the whole concept of the car."

Ford's Phil Caldwell

Philip Caldwell was the first non-Ford to become chief executive of the Ford Motor Co. He served in that capacity from 1980 through 1985. His Ford career spanned 32 years.

"Henry Ford II met privately with me in 1977 and told me I would succeed him as CEO. I became president in October 1979 and chairman the following March. He told me he had planned to stay nine months longer than he did, then said `This is nuts. I just can't be chairman. If you're going to be the chief executive officer, you have to have the whole thing. I'm going to get out of here, but I do have one request: I would like to remain an employee of the company until I'm 65.' He did...

Earlier, Mr. Ford had set up the Office of the Chief Executive comprising himself, Lee Iacocca and me. The late Bob Irvin, a reporter for the Detroit News, was probing and finally asked, `Mr. Ford, who is in charge when you're not around?' That was the first public disclosure that I was next in line."

UAW's Doug Fraser

Douglas A. Fraser, now 77, was United Auto Workers Union president from 1977 until 1983. He was the first union official to serve on the board of an auto manufacturer, Chrysler, and was an early UAW organizer.

"The most difficult time I had was when Chrysler was on the brink of bankruptcy in the late '70s. Iacocca was there. He got too much credit for the recovery. When the legislation was before Congress in 1979, he was not yet a folk hero and he was working the Republican side. Now, we had a Democratic president, Jimmy Carter, a Democratic Congress and the union people went to Washington and worked hard to get the loan guarantee legislation passed. Demands were made on us to make sacrifices. We did that three times in 14 months. It was difficult to go back to the members for ratification. We made concessions in 1979 and Congress asked for another $550 million. And after the guarantee was enacted and Chrysler sought to draw money, we had to make more concessions. And Ford was sicker in 1982 than anyone realized. The business magazines were saying Ford was almost terminal, with the foreign operations propping them up. The workers understood and it was not as tough at Ford as at Chrysler. The Chrysler workers were $2 an hour lower in the contract until 1985 when they caught up and have been doing well ever since...

While the Chrysler crisis was the most difficult, it was also the most satisfying. Contrary to what has been written, Lee Iacocca did not save the Chrysler Corp. The Chrysler workers saved Chrysler. Iacocca obviously is a marvelous marketer and salesman, and the company would not have prospered as it did had he not been there."

Designer Larry Shinoda

Lawrence K. Shinoda, 66, was a highly controversial designer who was on the staffs of GM, Ford, Packard and White Motor. Among his winners were the Corvette Sting Ray and the Boss Mustang. He was closely associated with S. E. (Bunkie) Knudsen, who brought him to Ford in 1968. He left when Mr. Knudsen was fired in 1969 and now heads his own design firm in Livonia, MI.

"Looking back, I wish that I had not gone from GM to Ford and instead waited for Toyota to open its West Coast studios. It later became Calty as it is known today. I was negotiating with Toyota in November 1967 to run Calty, but it took Toyota until the following June to decide to do it and I was already at Ford...

I was supposed to join Ford as a grade 18 design director but was made a grade 15 design exec. It was not a good deal. The head of the Ford design staff was so much against me that my appointment was delayed three months and somebody else got the higher ranking. Actually, I had worked for Ford for a year starting in 1956. It was my first job, and I assisted on the Mercury Turnpike Cruiser, originally a concept car. From there I went to Packard for seven months. GM hired me in 1957.

Knudsen never had a chance at Ford. Iacocca was solidly entrenched and had his whole organization behind him. I could see the handwriting on the wall, and I told Knudsen several times that he and I were going to be history. I was in Germany at the Frankfurt show when Knudsen was fired. Walter Hayes (head of Ford PR in Europe) met me at my hotel, took me up to a room and poured a vodka for me and scotch for himself. He told me about Knudsen leaving and then called Gene Bordinat, the vice president for design. Hayes told me not to worry, that I was not involved. He told me to go to Italy and do my job. The following Monday in Dearborn, Bordinat stood up with his hands on his desk and said, `Shinoda, you're history.' I got 90 days pay and was told to go home."

DeLorean's John DeLorean

John Z. DeLorean, now 71, headed Pontiac, Chevrolet, and was a group vice president over all GM car and truck divisions when his GM career ended in the mid-'70s. Earlier, he was an engineer at Packard. After GM, he built the gull-wing DeLorean car in Northern Ireland but was not successful. Mr. DeLorean today is an automotive consultant.

"One of the best of times were my years at Pontiac, especially in the early '60s. Bunkie Knudsen was general manager and Pete Estes was chief engineer and I was his assistant. The GTO was a special event for me. I built the car for myself, using a Tempest body, put a big V-8 in it, a Hurst shifter, better brakes. It was a convertible and I'd lend it out for two days and couldn't get it back. We decided to produce the car and sold 45,000 in 1964, the first year. We could have sold 100,000. It was a good car and cost less than $4,000...

Chevrolet was a lot of trouble because they didn't like outsiders, even from other divisions. Ed Cole was president of GM and called me off my vacation in California to give me the (Chevy) job. My superior was Roger Kyes, the group executive, and he told me I was not his choice and said, `I don't think you can do it. The minute you fall on your ass, I'm going to throw you out'...

A terrible experience at Chevrolet was Vega (which debuted as a '70 model), a car long in the works before my arrival. I was so embarrassed I couldn't stand it. Everybody in the world who ever made overhead cam engines used a cast iron block and an aluminum cylinder head. Vega was just the opposite with an aluminum block and a cast iron cylinder head. it weighed much more than an ordinary engine and had terrible problems. At first, Vega was shipped vertically in a freight car to save space. They went horizontal in a few months because every time the rail car hit a bump, the Vega engine brackets broke off...

Then, there's the Chevy Corvair. I never knew a car that killed so many people. There were at least two things basically wrong with it that were dangerous. One, the engine had a hot-air heater and it didn't have an intermediate baffle. Exhaust heat would fill the passenger compartment with carbon monoxide and you could be almost dead without knowing it. Second, the swing axle on the rear suspension was a menace."

Ford's Stan Drall

Stanley Drall, now in his 70s, ran the Ford Motor Co. press pool for decades. He retired last December after more than half-century with Ford, and may have been the last employee linked to the pioneer founder.

"I was hired out of high school in 1941 as a typist. My test was a letter for Henry Ford's signature, and I was told my future depended on it. Mr. Ford approved and signed the letter. I met him many times. Once, he and Charles Lindbergh were standing behind me in one of the executive offices (during WWII). Lindy was congratulating him on Liberator bomber production, and Ford thanked him, then patted me on the right shoulder and said, `I'd trade it all for what he's got.' Ford was 78 and I was 18...

The most exciting times for me? Lots of them. I arranged to deliver the millionth Mustang to Jimmy Durante. I had my problems with some of the press. We had a new fleet of Fairlanes, and they went out so quickly I missed one. After a few months of police seeking the car, I was at the Press Club and this guy asked me if I wanted my car back. We picked it up the next day...

There was a reporter who was king of the automotive writers. At one time he had seven cars in his driveway. He would call anybody any time for a car. Even Henry Ford II or Lee Iacocca. That doesn't happen anymore."

Ford's Bob Hefty

Robert W. Hefty was 75 when he died in late April. He capped a 30-year public relations career at Ford in 1982 as director of international and diversified products public affairs. A legendary grammarian whose ever-sharpened red pencil cut a wide swath through Ford's PR ranks, the Minnesota native was a faithful but frustrated golfer and Detroit Lions fan, and a driver of questionable skills. After Ford he worked for the Detroit Edision Co. and was active in numerous civic organizations. Bob had planned to write a first-hand account for this issue, but because of poor health he was unable to do so. He was, however, interviewed on Easter by WAW Editor-in-Chief Dave Smith.

"I worked with Henry Ford II mostly on family matters, not company business. He was a great guy, he really was. I was assigned to cover his daughter Ann's coming-out (debutante) party around 1960. We were in the hallway outside the library of his home and Mr. Ford came out in his bathrobe and said, `Bob, will you come in here and tell Edsel (HF II's then 12-year-old son) a few things about what he should and shouldn't say to the press?' So I said, `Well, Edsel, the first thing is don't mention money; it's nobody's business but your Dad's.' And Edsel says, `You mean I can't tell them I spent a quarter-million bucks on this?'...

(Bob handled Mustang press relations early in 1964 when the new "pony car" wound up on the cover of both Time and Newsweek during the same week -- at once a PR man's delight, and nightmare. Here's his account). "The actual facts are these: Newsweek had asked for a cover-story exclusive months before and we said `We'll give it to you as exclusive as we can.' Then Time decided it was going to do a simultaneous cover, so the first thing I did was go to Jim Jones (who was Newsweek's Detroit bureau chief), and say, `Well, it looks like Time's going to move in on you and there will probably be nothing I can do about it. But I can assure you Lee Iacocca isn't going to give them any extensive interviews or photography.' I've been misrepresented on this. People said I went to Time and tried to engineer it, but that was the farthest thing from my mind because Jim Jones was one of the closest friends I had, and still is. He's never accused me of doublecrossing him...

Iacocca warned me that `If this (the Mustang story) is a flop, so are you.' After the two stories came out, he called me up to his hotel room for champagne, and said `Here's to you -- you did a great job.' Iacocca was the greatest salesman in the world, and the worst handler of people in the world. But he treated me O.K."