Ed Cole's triumph: A great V-8
How many divisional managers had ever been able to boast of publicity like that? His motto, "Kick the hell out of the status quo," soon would be widely known. One engineer characterized Cole's management philosophy as "the hot poker."
Cole made an impression as a go-to guy early in his career. GM assigned the M-41 Walker Bulldog tank project to Cadillac in 1949. Plant manager Cole, who had joined the division in 1933 from the General Motors Institute, found a suitable facility in Cleveland. He flew his Beech Bonanza around the country to find production tools and got the tank job under way in 10 months.
Passing their evenings at Cleveland's Lakeshore Hotel, Cole and his men entertained themselves by drawing up plans that eventually became Chevrolet's small-block V-8. He became Chevy's chief engineer in 1952.
"At that time Chevrolet was making a little six, a grandmother type of car," Cole recalled. "Nobody had ever built an enthusiast type of car around Chevrolet."
That was before the Corvette, which Cole volunteered to develop. It arrived in 1953.
Dave Cole, an auto industry analyst and Ed's eldest son, remembers riding with his father to the family's northern Michigan retreat in 1953 when Dave was about 15. A prototype of the small-block engine was fitted into their black '53 Chevy, and Ed barreled along at 100 mph until the family reached their destination.
When an astonished state trooper finally caught up, he merely asked, "What have you got in that thing?"
"He enjoyed living on the edge," Dave Cole recalls. "He was a fast, impatient, skilled driver."
Father of the Corvair
Cole's small-block V-8 was offered in the 1955 Chevy. Moving up from chief engineer, he was named the division's general manager in July 1956. From Feb. 5 to March 8, 1957, Cole embarked on a grueling, nationwide series of dealer meetings.
His speechwriter and companion, Alvie Smith, lost 12 pounds during those weeks of travel, but Cole "got stronger and more charismatic with each presentation," Smith later wrote in a memoir.
On the cover of Time's Oct. 5, 1959, issue, Cole wasn't honored for the small-block V-8 or the Corvette. Instead, he was hailed as the father of the rear-engine Corvair.
But being the father of the Corvair didn't always result in good publicity. In Unsafe at Any Speed, published in 1965, Ralph Nader trashed the Corvair and the corporate design philosophy that created it. Nader won; Cole and GM lost. The company dropped the Corvair in 1969.
In 1961, Cole was promoted to group vice president, overseeing all of GM's automotive divisions, and in 1965 he became executive vice president in charge of general staff activities. He was named president of GM in 1967.
Cole's irrepressible spirit was needed during that period, which encompassed the early days of federal government regulation of the auto industry, a recall of more than 6 million vehicles because of faulty engine mounts, and the first Arab oil embargo. He retired in 1974.
In his final days at GM, Cole fought for the Wankel rotary engine in GM's small cars, but that program faded away. He saw the Wankel as a way to help consumers deal with an energy crisis.
A do-it-all engineer
No job was too daunting for him. Richard Gerstenberg, a former GM chairman, told The Wall Street Journal, "I guess you could describe Ed as the kind of guy to whom you might say, 'Ed, I'd like you to move the General Motors Building across the road,' and he'd say, 'Do you want it facing Second Avenue or Grand Boulevard?' "
Gerstenberg said Cole was a get-it-done kind of executive who sometimes wanted to move faster than GM could go. But it was that style that pushed him through the ranks to the GM presidency.
Cole was born in Marne, Mich., in 1909 and was driving by age 10. He attended Grand Rapids Junior College to prepare for a career as a lawyer. But he changed his mind after enrolling at the General Motors Institute in Flint, where he was able to work while attending school. When his boss offered him a job at Cadillac, Cole took it without graduating.
In March 1977, Cole, then 67, took over as chairman of Checker Motors Corp., of Kalamazoo, Mich. Declaring himself "Number one at number five," he planned a new taxi to revive the tiny automaker. But a few weeks into the job, on May 2, 1977, Cole died when his small plane crashed while he was commuting to work.
The crash occurred near Mendon, Mich., close to the boyhood home of Pete Estes, who had succeeded Cole as GM's president.