Pete Estes brought his 'attaboy' attitude to GM's presidency
When a cousin who worked for Pontiac sent a news clipping about the General Motors Institute, Estes decided the automotive business was for him. In 1934, with $1,000 in savings, he headed for GMI in Flint, Mich.
That's where he got his nickname.
"When I walked up to the crib in the shop where I had a job running a screw machine, the old boy (stock clerk) said, 'What's your name?' I told him. He let out half a laugh and said, 'You look like a Pete to me,' " Estes reminisced 46 years later, when he retired from GM.
After six months in Flint, Estes went to GM Research Laboratories, in Detroit, and worked under Charles "Boss" Kettering. Part of the experience was learning how to put up with the master's quirks.
"Ket would come in sometimes late at night, grab a screwdriver out of your hand and fiddle with the engine until we had to do our work all over again," Estes told the Detroit Free Press. "Once he stalled a car in Detroit's Washington Boulevard traffic, then called me and said, 'Pete, I'll give you five minutes to come down and get this pile of junk off the street.' "
After Estes received his GMI certificate in 1938, he spent two years at the University of Cincinnati and graduated in 1940 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He returned to Kettering's labs and worked on high-compression four-stroke technology.
Estes moved to Oldsmobile in 1946, concentrating on development of the "Rocket" V-8 and advancing to assistant chief engineer at Olds in 1954. He became chief engineer at Pontiac two years later and rose to general manager of the division in 1961.
At Pontiac, he was part of the Knudsen-Estes-DeLorean team that revived the sagging division and led it to third place in industry sales.
Estes was born Jan. 7, 1916, at the Wakeman House hotel, in Mendon, Mich., in the southwest part of the state. His grandparents owned the establishment and his mother helped run it. Estes' father worked in a bank. "When I was about nine, Dad got another bank job at Constantine, nine miles down the road," Estes said in a 1974 interview, when he became president of GM. "Believe me, Mom was pretty reluctant to move that far."
Estes kept his small-town values throughout his life. He was warm and friendly. "I've never heard him utter a cross or unkind word to anybody," an associate told The Detroit News in 1962. He had little time for hobbies, but between May and October, he regularly swam in the pool at his suburban Detroit home.
He also dabbled in gin rummy aboard company airplanes and at the Bloomfield Hills Country Club.
Estes' youngest son, Bill, an Indianapolis Chevrolet dealer, remembers how his father would shake the hand of every man and hug and kiss every woman at meet-and-greet functions. "When he got up in years, his mustache got gray," Bill recalls. "He would touch it up with a mascara pencil. When he kissed the ladies, it left a smudge on their cheek. You could always tell whom he'd kissed."
Estes' competitive streak always showed. After he became Chevrolet general manager in 1965, he installed a "See the U.S.A. in Your Chevrolet" horn in his car for the benefit of Don Frey, the general manager of Ford Division, who lived across the street.
Pete Estes told this story of the neighborhood rivalry: "When I had a performance car or an experimental car, I'd back it into the driveway so Don could see it. Pretty soon, there would be a tap on the door and Don would say, 'Hi Pete. Mind if I take a look?' "
Estes added with a chuckle, "Of course, Don did the same thing when he had something special, and I'd be the one who walked across the street."
Today, items from Estes' office are displayed at Kettering University's Scharchburg Archives. Among his books are serious economic and business tomes along with a smattering of oddities such as Challenger: Mickey Thompson's Own Story of His Life of Speed, the 1965 autobiography of auto racer Thompson.
Thompson set a speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in his Challenger I, which was powered by four supercharged Pontiac V-8 engines. The author's inscription to Estes expressed the hope that they could "keep doing business."
The magic touch
As general manager of Pontiac from 1961-65, Estes guided the division to third place in industry sales, achieving nearly 700,000 and a 9.5 percent market share in 1964. Among Pontiac's offerings during the Estes era was the innovative Tempest, with a rear-mounted transmission for optimal weight distribution.
Estes succeeded Bunkie Knudsen as Chevrolet general manager in 1965, just as he had succeeded Knudsen at Pontiac four years earlier. In 1965, Chevy topped 3 million in production, an industry first.
Estes was promoted to group vice president for automotive divisions in 1969, executive vice president in charge of the operations staff (and GM board member) in 1972, and GM president and COO on Sept. 30, 1974.
The seven years of his presidency were turbulent, with rising energy prices and a flurry of federal regulations. The downsized fleet of GM's full-sized cars yielded big fuel economy gains, though such cars as the X-body compacts and the Chevrolet Chevette would have disappointed Kettering.
But Estes, with his product knowledge and affable, outgoing personality, was a good counterpart to CEO Thomas Murphy, a financial guy who was more reserved.
"Pete had that way about him of making everybody feel good, that 'I was listened to, I got my say, and we're going to move forward with what's best for GM,' " John Middlebrook, who retired in July as GM vice president for global sales, service and marketing operations, recalled recently.
"You would see him in the hall. It was always, 'How ya' doin, attaboy!' And he'd hit you on the back and pump your hand. He had a spirit about him that lifted people."
Estes' enthusiasm was undiminished when he retired from GM in 1981. "If I was starting over tomorrow, I'd do exactly the same thing," he told the Detroit Free Press. "It's the most exciting and fun business in the whole world."
Estes died March 24, 1988, of a heart attack at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago while traveling to a Kellogg Co. board meeting. He was 72.