LEGENDARY GENERAL MOTORS EXECUTIVE Edward Cole wanted his son, Dave, to attend MIT after he graduated from Redford High School near Detroit in 1955, but Dave Cole had different ideas.
He wanted to attend Michigan State University to study agriculture, after working on his grandparent's dairy farm in western Michigan since he was a tyke.
The younger Cole ultimately chose the University of Michigan, where he went on to earn four degrees capped by a doctorate in mechanical engineering, which he ended up teaching at U. of M. for 26 years.
“I was not ready to go too far from home,” he admits in a lengthy interview with Ward's.
Still youthful at 73, Dave Cole has been based in the college town of Ann Arbor for a half-century, but during that time he's managed to become one of the world's best-known and most-quoted automotive gurus in the industry.
Through his work as an educator, consultant, entrepreneur, researcher, and organizer of non-profit organizations, he has become a key media source on all things automotive. “I always answer every reporter who calls,” he says.
Dave Cole credits his extensive media exposure to his grounding as an educator. With exclusive access to the industry's highest-ranking executives worldwide, he gains insight and information available to few others. And he's a master networker, rubbing elbows with everyone from union leaders to politicians and industry sources.
To that end, he makes up to 75 presentations yearly, some for free, some for a fee. He's also a consultant to a variety of companies and organizations.
Dave Cole has gained prominence and stature since the early 1970s, when he became involved with an annual industry conference every August in Traverse City, MI, now known as the Management Briefing Seminars.
Founded in 1965 by Don Smith, then-director of the University of Michigan Institute for Science and Technology, it initially attracted an audience of 30 or so OEM and supplier executives.
Dave Cole became part of the conference in 1972, and his name is synonymous with the confab. Today it attracts 1,000 or so attendees, who show up to hear a start-studded list of speakers from across the globe.
MBS originally was sponsored by the U. of M. Office for the Study of Automotive Transportation, which he headed. It was succeeded by another independent organization he was instrumental in founding, the Center for Automotive Research.
Dave Cole headed CAR until last year when he became chairman emeritus. He remains involved with the group, but has turned his attention as well to numerous new pursuits. “I'm not ready to retire,” Dave Cole says. “Like my dad, I like to have a lot of projects going.”
Although he shares some personality traits with his father, such as mechanical aptitude and a keen mind, Dave Cole is considerably more laid back. They were close when he was growing up, but as Ed Cole climbed the ladder at GM, his long hours ate into his home life.
A hands-on turbocharged engineer, Ed Cole was the consummate “car guy” and technical visionary.
He joined GM in the early 1930s when he was a student at theInstitute in Flint, MI. By 1955, he was soaring up GM's hierarchy, ultimately rising to president in 1967 before retiring in 1974.
Ed Cole developed an advanced V-8 for Cadillac in 1949, ran GM's tank plant in Cleveland and by 1952 became Chevrolet's chief engineer.
One of his landmark achievements was the development of the renowned small-block V-8 for the '55 Chevy. The small-block's basic architecture remains the foundation for GM's V-8s, while the car he spearheaded into production is an icon.
Dave Cole recalls those heady days. “He'd have his guys working in our basement or driveway,” developing the new Chevy, he says.
“I once asked him why the '55 was so successful — they did the V-8 and the car in two years — and he said, ‘It was the consummate focus of everybody. We were on a mission. It was a dedicated team.’ Dad's role was to lead that team. He'd press people very hard.”
Ed Cole also fathered Chevy's revolutionary rear-engine Corvair, which debuted in 1960 but was killed after 1969 thanks to Ralph Nader's famous book that branded the car “Unsafe at Any Speed.”
Despite Nader's fusillade, Ed Cole still was respected for the numerous innovations he developed for the Corvair. He went on to advance many more technologies related to emissions and safety. And he championed development of the revolutionary Wankel rotary engine, which GM dropped when he retired.
“He was always into new things,” his son says. At the time he died, flying his twin-engine plane during a storm in September 1977, the elder Cole headed two companies, one focused on creating a new line of taxis and the other an air freight business intending to drastically change manufacturing logistics.
Even though he didn't follow in his father's footsteps, Dave Cole spent summers in college working at the massive GM Technical Center in suburban Detroit and inherited his father's love of cars and all things mechanical.
Still, “I knew early that I didn't want to work where my dad worked,” he says. “But he had project ideas coming out of every pore, and I'm the same way.”
Professor Cole also has demonstrated a strong interest in business. He helped create five start-up technical companies (since sold) based in Ann Arbor and doesn't take exception to a Bloomberg BusinessWeek report that he serves on 13 corporate and four organization boards covering six different entities.
By his own account, “I could've retired 25 years ago,” apparently thanks mainly to income from his private companies, Cole says. Beyond that, he doesn't discuss his personal wealth.
Seated in his memorabilia-filled office at CAR, including photos, plaques, honors, awards and toy cars and trucks, Dave Cole looks at his future and that of the industry with which he has been so closely aligned.
Among his latest pursuits is chairmanship of AutoHarvest, a non-profit organization pushing the innovation curve by matching buyers seeking solutions with sellers who have answers. It brings together 50 government, university, auto maker, supplier and manufacturing organizations, including the Detroit Three.
“AutoHarvest will be a portal for the flow of intellectual properties — a virtual marketplace — in and out of the auto industry,” Dave Cole says.
Another non-profit project he's spearheading is called “Building America's Tomorrow,” which promotes the need for a strong U.S. manufacturing base and the skilled workers that will be required. The target audience is “kids, teachers,” who'll need to know what's expected to compete, he says.
If that weren't enough, Dave Cole also is working on what he describes as “The Experience Connection” aimed at linking skilled baby boomers now retiring with those needing their expertise, basically on a part-time basis.
Another venture he's working on is a driver simulation device for dealerships using a video game approach to teach safe-driving techniques.
Despite his many commitments, Dave Cole manages to stay on top, or ahead of, global automotive developments.
In the aftermath of the industry's brush with disaster, he now sees U.S. auto makers holding a competitive cost advantage over other players in the American market — except the Koreans.
Having closed plants, won major labor concessions and otherwise tightened their belts, the Detroit Three have transitioned from a $2,000 per car disadvantage to a $2,000-$3,000 advantage.
“It blows my mind. It changes the game,” he says. “They're making big money with (U.S. light-vehicle) sales around 10.5 million a year. Think what it'll be when sales get back to 14 million,” a sales level some predict will be reached in 2012.
If the U.S. auto makers offer employees represented by the United Auto Workers union more generous profit sharing in place of old-style wage and benefit packages in the future, that may give the union a wedge to organize the foreign-based transplants, Dave Cole says.
He met his wife, Carol, when she was studying art at Michigan State. They have been married 45 years and have two sons and eight grandchildren.
An avid fisherman and golfer, Dave Cole remains true to GM. Asked how many shares he has purchased in the “new” GM since its initial public offering last November, he chuckles and says, “quite a bit.”
Dad would be proud.
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