Rank had its privileges for GM brass
Peter De Lorenzo, publisher of the industry Web site autoextremist.com, witnessed the life of a GM executive firsthand as the son of Tony De Lorenzo, who was General Motors' public relations vice president from 1957 to 1979.
"Back then," Peter De Lorenzo recalls, "the division general managers were akin to the potentates of small countries. They had incredible power and authority. There's just no equivalent now; managers today simply would not be able to relate."
For the first two years as PR chief, Tony De Lorenzo commuted between Flint and Detroit with GM CEO Harlow Curtice — but not by carpooling in a 1957 Chevy.
"Every Sunday night, Curtice and my dad would fly down to Detroit in the company plane," Peter De Lorenzo says. "From Monday to Friday they would stay in the executive suites off the 14th floor of the GM Building. Their executive canteen was the London Chop House (one of Detroit's premier restaurants), where they would have dinner and hold court every night. Then on Fridays, they'd fly back to Flint and spend the weekends with their families."
He remembers the GM Building itself as a monument to the world's largest automaker: "The main lobby was great. There was always an armada of the latest models on display, with two or three cars from every division. With all of its marble, glass doors, and gilt trim, it definitely felt like you were in the lobby of the most powerful corporation on earth."
And, he says, "The executive garage always had some hot stuff."
Cole had a lead foot
An example: Ed Cole's personal car in the early 1960s was a 1961 Impala SS that had one of only two 409 engines then in existence — the other was powering "Dyno" Don Nicholson's Chevy at the Summer National Drags.
Cole, an engineering whiz who became general manager of Chevrolet and later GM president, was never far from the newest, hottest engine technology.
"Ed actually let us borrow it for a weekend, and riding shotgun for my older brother, Tony, is one of the highlights of my youth," Peter says with a chuckle. "We humiliated many a car on Woodward Avenue that weekend." Woodward, Detroit's most famous avenue, was a drag-racing mecca in those days.
Dave Cole, Ed Cole's son, recalls that although GM's top managers at the time were among the most highly paid executives in the country, first and foremost for them was the product and technology.
Cole also remembers his father's passion for performance: "Dad had a lead foot and loved all things fast. One of his favorite projects was a black, plain-as-could-be 1953 Chevy that he had outfitted with a 265-cid V-8. He would pull into a gas station and ask the attendant to check the oil just to see the looks on their faces when they saw what was under the hood."
Bunkie fixed the phone
The power of GM's upper managers wasn't limited to being able to create their own personal hot rods. Judy Christie, daughter of Bunkie Knudsen and granddaughter of William S. Knudsen, tells the story of when she and her husband, Howard, moved to Clarence, N.Y., in the early 1960s for Howard's job there with GM.
"Clarence was remote and sparsely populated, so we shared a party telephone line with the neighborhood," she recalls. "During a phone call with my dad, then Chevy's general manager, one of the neighbors picked up and my dad asked, 'What was that?' I told him it was our party line. The next day a truck came out and ran new phone lines for the whole neighborhood so we could have a private line."
As Howard Christie made his way up the ranks at GM, he had the chance to see up close how upper management was treated. "Whenever an executive was collected at an airport, there was always somebody to meet him and carry his briefcase," he recalls.
Christie adds, "I've thought a lot about why things were the way they were back then. The best I can come up with is that a lot of these guys had served in World War II and had seen how the guy ahead of them in rank was treated with all the perks and privileges. They'd think to themselves, 'When I get to that position, I want that, too.'
"I think that attitude carried over once they got civilian jobs, because I saw it in a lot of places back then, not just at GM."