Bunkie Knudsen's big gamble never paid off
High-profile exec was passed over at GM and then worked over at Ford
Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen broke the mold. He shattered everyone's expectations and left General Motors for Ford Motor Co. after 29 years, and he found out quickly why people didn't leave one car company for another.
Bunkie Knudsen had oil in his veins.
At age 14, he asked his father, William "Big Bill" Knudsen, for a car. His father agreed, with one condition: The car was in hundreds of pieces, and Bunkie had to put it together. He did.
In 1939, Bunkie Knudsen arrived at GM as the boss' son, with a master's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
His nickname? Bestowed on him by his father, it was a World War I term short for "bunkmates" or close friends.
Big Bill was an early automotive maverick. He was Henry Ford's production boss when he accepted Alfred P. Sloan's invitation to join GM and Chevrolet in 1921. The elder Knudsen was GM's president from 1937 to 1940, when he left to run the nation's war production machinery. It seemed that Bunkie would follow his father's steps to the presidency.
Bunkie worked hard to learn the trade and in 1955 was named general manager of GM's Detroit Diesel Engine Division. It was the first of several major promotions.
Big splash at Pontiac
In July 1956, Bunkie was given control of Pontiac - which wasn't exactly a gift because Pontiac had become an old man's car. His first priority as general manager was to change that image.
Just before production of the 1957 models began, Bunkie ordered the designers to remove the trademark silver streak that had adorned the hood since 1935. He was told it was too late. But Knudsen insisted, and the 1957 Pontiac was built without the silver streak.
Also in 1956, Pete Estes joined Pontiac (from Oldsmobile) as chief engineer, and Bunkie brought John DeLorean to Pontiac as director of advanced engineering. The Knudsen-Estes-DeLorean team began reshaping Pontiac's cars and its image quickly.
Bunkie saw the need to appeal to youthful buyers. He often said, "You can sell a young man's car to an old man, but you can't sell an old man's car to a young man."
Pontiac got a big boost in 1959, when the three men lowered the cars, spread the wheelbase and created the wide track design that would become a Pontiac trademark. The new look presented the appearance of a crouching animal and sent Pontiac sales skyrocketing, from 319,719 in 1957 to 877,382 in 1968.
The 1959 model was the first all-Knudsen Pontiac, and the division quickly rose to third place in industry sales behind Chevrolet and Ford. In 1955, Pontiac had been in sixth place.
Bunkie became head of Chevrolet in 1961, and by 1967 he was executive vice president of General Motors and a member of the board of directors.
Knudsen was set up for the presidency. He had a master's degree; he had turned Pontiac around; he had set sales records at Chevrolet. Yet in 1967, when directors chose a new president, the position went to Ed Cole.
Cole was just three years older than Bunkie, and Knudsen knew his chances of succeeding Cole were slim or none.
General Motors had a dilemma. It had two men who would have made outstanding presidents. Some might say a car manufacturer could have worse problems - but, from Knudsen's perspective, what do you do when you have devoted your life to a car company only to be passed over? You look out for yourself.
It was rumored that Henry Ford II had courted both Cole and Knudsen. Now, with Knudsen upset about GM's decision, Ford visited him at his home and tried to persuade him to join Ford Motor.
Only two high-ranking GM executives had ever given up their posts, and both had left for government positions. Charles Wilson resigned as president in 1952 to become secretary of defense, and Bunkie's father left in 1940 to supervise the nation's war production.
But in February 1968, Knudsen did the unthinkable. He left GM to become president of Ford Motor. The auto world was shocked.
The outsider's problem
Ed Cole once was asked whether he would ever accept an offer to head another manufacturer, and he replied, "Ed Cole with his team at GM is an effective executive, but Ed Cole without his top aides somewhere else would be a pretty sick guy."
Bunkie quickly learned what Cole meant. When Bunkie moved to Ford Motor, he was virtually alone and experienced culture shock. The Ford way of doing things was different from the GM way.
Knudsen was smart and began to adapt quickly. He was in the good graces of Henry Ford II and slowly began to make visible changes in the company. But he was never fully able to push his agenda because of too much opposition.
Knudsen had a problem at Ford Motor that proved too great to surmount: Lee Iacocca, who considered Knudsen an obstacle. Iacocca had expected to get the presidency before Knudsen arrived. Ironically, Iacocca felt much the same as Knudsen had when Cole was named GM's president.
Iacocca had a sterling record at Ford Motor and a vast support system. It didn't take long for Iacocca to isolate Knudsen and convince others that the position should belong to someone from the inside.
Contrast Knudsen's situation with that of Iacocca, who headed Chrysler Corp. after being fired by Henry Ford II. Chrysler was in a deep financial pit and needed a new perspective and a new leader. That wasn't the case at Ford. And, equally important, Iacocca took some of his gang with him: Ben Bidwell, Hal Sperlich and Gerald Greenwald, to name but three.
'Shocked and puzzled'
In September 1969, 19 months after Henry Ford II hired Bunkie, he fired him. "Shocked and puzzled" were the words Bunkie used to describe his reaction to the firing.
Ford walked into Bunkie's office and said, "Things just didn't work out."
All Bunkie could say was "I'm shocked."
Ford said, "I imagine you would be." And that was that.
In 1971, Bunkie became chairman of White Motor Corp., a maker of heavy-duty trucks and agricultural and construction vehicles. He pulled the company from a sorry financial position to that of a profit maker in eight years.
Knudsen retired from White in 1980. Soon afterward the company went bankrupt.
Knudsen died July 6, 1998, at a Detroit-area hospital at age 85. Who knows whether he would have done things differently if he had had the chance to do them again.
His career was a tale of great success and utter heartbreak. He rose to within a step of the top of the world's premier auto manufacturer. He left in an effort to win even greater laurels, but it didn't happen.
He was an automotive giant who gambled big - and lost big.
You can reach K.C. Crain at email@example.com.