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 C. (Bob) Stempel was truly 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.
It has been erroneously reported that Stempel was the first engineer ever to be named CEO at GM. He is the second. The legendary Alfred P. Sloan Jr., who was CEO from 1923 to 1946, had an electrical engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
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.
A protégé of the legendary Edward N. Cole, GM president from 1967 to 1974, he led development of GM’s first front-wheel-drive car, the 1966 Toronado, which also spawned its once-popular GM Motor home; worked closely with Cole on a catalytic converter to tame vehicle emissions; and while CEO green-lighted the EV1 electric car, which later was killed but contained innovations since adopted by the auto maker’s ground-breaking Chevy Volt.
Stempel also was deeply involved in GM’s Wankel rotary engine, a project that was dropped when Cole retired.
Stempel started as a chassis detail engineer at the Oldsmobile Div., becoming Olds’ assistant chief engineer in 1972.
He moved up swiftly after that with stops including Chevrolet engineering director, Pontiac Div. general manager, and managing director of Adam Opel, GM’s German subsidiary.
In 1986 Stempel was elected executive vice president and a member of GM’s board of directors, and in 1987 was named president and chief operating officer.
Only 59 when he left GM, Stempel became chairman of Energy Conversion Devices in Rochester Hills, MI, where he led the company’s efforts in developing solar panels and advanced batteries for hybrid cars.
He retired in 2007 but continued to work with ECD founder Stanford Ovshinsky to develop solar panels at half the cost of those now available.
Stempel died of an undisclosed illness Saturday in Florida at age 77. A native of Trenton, NJ, he is survived by his wife and three adult children.