THE LATE JIM JONES, NEWSWEEK'S Detroit bureau chief during the 1970s and 1980s, was fond of saying, “The whole world is full of nice guys, but there's absolutely no demand.”
But Robert (Bob) Stempel truly was a nice guy and “car guy” who made it to the top as chairman and CEO ofin 1990 after a string of successful technical achievements.
Stempel was the second engineer to be named CEO at GM, behind the legendary Alfred Sloan Jr., who was CEO from 1923 to 1946.
A tall, affable executive with a keen ability to translate technology into understandable English, Stempel joined GM three years after earning a mechanical engineering degree from Worchester Polytechnic Institute. He received an MBA in 1970 while attending night classes at Michigan State University.
When Stempel was Chevrolet vice president and general manager in the early 1980s, he once astounded reporters at a press preview by describing in detail, without a single note, the features and technical fine points of more than a dozen cars and trucks lined up in a semi-circle at GM's Milford, MI, Proving Grounds. He spoke for nearly two hours and no one snoozed.
He succeeded the late Roger B. Smith August 1, 1990, as the auto maker was dripping red ink. After only one day in the CEO's chair, Iraq invaded Kuwait, helping trigger a U.S. recession that sent sales into a nosedive, ultimately costing him his job.
Despite closing plants, laying off thousands and dropping poor-selling models, Stempel was forced to resign 26 months later in a boardroom coup. He joked in a 1992 Reuters profile that he had “one good day as CEO.”
Even so, Stempel's engineering contributions during his 34-year GM career are his real legacy.
He led development of GM's first front-wheel-drive car, the '66 Toronado; worked on a catalytic converter to tame vehicle emissions; and while CEO green-lighted the EV1 electric car, which contained innovations since adopted by the ground-breaking Chevy Volt.
Stempel started as a chassis detail engineer at the Oldsmobile Div., becoming Olds' assistant chief engineer in 1972.
Stempel died May 7 of an undisclosed illness in Florida at age 77.