'Big Bill' Knudsen turned Chevrolet from an also-ran into a powerhouse
His crosstown move after a clash with Henry Ford turned out be a windfall for GM
But in 1921, he walked away from a good job at Ford Motor Co. to avoid a fight, though it's not likely fists would have been involved. He was production manager at Ford with a $50,000 annual salary and a 15 percent bonus.
"I haven't any other job in sight," he told a friend. "I haven't even thought about another job. All I've thought about is avoiding a quarrel with Mr. Ford. I can't avoid it if I stay, and I can't stay and keep my self-respect."
Ford had subverted Knudsen's shop instructions, but that wasn't the only problem. Knudsen considered the Model T a relic. The Rouge Works, which he helped design, seemed like an albatross. And his papers at the National Automotive History Collection in the Detroit Public Library suggest Knudsen was troubled by Ford's anti-Semitism.
Ford urged Knudsen to take a long vacation instead of quitting. But "Big Bill" took home the unhappy news of his resignation back to his 10-acre country place on Grosse Ile in the Detroit River.
Turning around Chevy
Within a couple of months, Knudsen was general manager for a manufacturer of brass stove trimmings and auto parts. After 10 months there, he went to General Motors at $30,000 a year. He got a $20,000 raise three weeks later and started running Chevrolet's operations for GM President Pierre DuPont. Chevy had lost $8,692,142 in 1921. Consultants had recommended that the division be closed.
The first order of business was to improve Chevy's basic model while squelching Charles Kettering's proposed air-cooled engine, which Knudsen saw as a big mistake. Knudsen reckoned that at least $7 million had been sunk into that project, but he persuaded Alfred Sloan to write it off.
In 1922 the division made a profit of $11.3 million, a turnaround of nearly $20 million.
Big on machines
A common theme of Knudsen's speeches in the 1930s was that every young man should learn the mechanic's trade. He said even preachers, teachers, lawyers and doctors would benefit.
Knudsen liked to wear his hat at his desk. He kept his office walls bare because pictures seemed frilly. His letters were first written longhand instead of being dictated for typing. He kept an oak tub filled with bottled water on ice, and there were cigars near his telephones and cigarettes inside his desk.
As a youth in Denmark he had played some violin and piano, and that kindled a lifelong love of music. Today his granddaughters — Judy Christie and Lisa Flint, both of Birmingham, Mich. — remember him skillfully hammering the xylophone in the basement of his family's Tudor-style home in Detroit's elegant Palmer Woods neighborhood.
In 1940, when he was 61 and overseeing the U.S. war production effort from Washington, The New Yorker magazine described him as being 6 feet 3 inches tall and 230 pounds. When one of his daughters came to town, the magazine said, he would take her dancing and could hoof it for hours without puffing.
Press reports described him as gentle, kindly and soft-spoken, although one reporter wrote, "He can roar at need." He spoke in "plain but vivid factory lingo," said The New Yorker.
The King of Denmark knighted him, elevating him to the Order of the Dannebrog. His daughters teasingly called him "Sir William."
Knudsen was a strict father to his three daughters. He sent them off to Swiss boarding schools and locked them out of their trust funds until age 50 to forestall fortune-hunters.
But his son, Bunkie Knudsen, who became an important GM and Ford executive, graduated from a Detroit private school. He went away to college during the late years of Prohibition. Fearing his only son would swill rotgut whiskey or bathtub gin, Big Bill sent quantities of good liquor his way. And Bunkie came into his inheritance at age 35.
Big Bill Knudsen's career earned him the moniker "Genius of Production," and he pushed Chevrolet in pursuit of industry leader Ford. In his accented English, Knudsen famously told a 1924 meeting of 2,000 dealers that Chevy's sales should match Ford's: "Ay vant vun for vun."
In 1929 Knudsen introduced Chevy's "six for the price of a four," making an astoundingly quick model changeover to a new model with a bigger engine. Pontiac was added to his portfolio before he became executive vice president of the corporation in 1933.
The presidency followed in 1937 after he helped settle the sit-down strike in 1937 and Sloan devoted himself exclusively to the chairmanship.
World War II led Knudsen down an unexpected path. President Franklin D. Roosevelt summoned him to the capital in 1940 to be co-director of the Office of Production Management. As a "dollar-a-year man" paying his own living expenses, Knudsen visited 350 plants and flew 250,000 miles.
Political scuffling cost him the Office of Production Management post but gained him a U.S. Army commission. He returned to Detroit as Lt. Gen. Knudsen.
When he died of a cerebral hemorrhage on April 27, 1948, one obituary extolled Knudsen as a "war casualty." The Detroit Free Press wrote: "With a calm strength beyond mortal comprehension he laid down the matrix for victory, often working around the clock without resting. He more than any other man was the leader of Victory, for he made it possible."