Chevrolet General Manager Thomas Keating was ready when General Motors President Charles Wilson came to him in early 1952 with an unusual offer.
"Chevrolet had fallen behind its corporate brethren and had lost ground to a revitalized, onrushing Ford," Ed Cray writes in Chrome Colossus: General Motors and Its Times. "The 1952 Chevrolet appeared banal compared to the newly re-designed Fords. ... One critic decided Chevrolet 'looked as though it had been designed by Herbert Hoover's haberdasher'."
Drastic measures were needed.
In Chevrolet: A History from 1911, Beverly Rae Kimes and Robert C. Ackerson write that Wilson went to Keating and told him "he could have anything or anyone he needed to breathe new life into Chevrolet."
Keating took both -- an anyone and an anything.
The anyone was Ed Cole. The anything was the Corvette.
Keating wanted Cole because Cole had led the development of Cadillac's new for 1949 short-stroke V-8 engine. Keating desperately wanted a new engine for Chevrolet, which had been powered by a "cast iron wonder" inline six-cylinder that had not been updated since the late 1930s.
For some reason Cole was languishing as plant manager at GM's tank plant in Cleveland, and eagerly accepted his new assignment. He set the Chevrolet engineering staff to work on a new engine project, the so-called Chevrolet small-block V-8 that would go into production for the 1955 model year.
When Wilson made Keating his anyone/anything offer, the car that would be unveiled as the Chevrolet Corvette already was a full-scale clay model in Harley Earl's design studio. Depending on which version of history you believe, there was either an intense fight among the various GM car divisions to claim the two-seat sports car -- a fight Keating won -- or there was so little interest in the car that Keating got it as a Chevrolet almost by default.
Either way, Keating got the Corvette, which was unveiled at the 1953 Motorama show in New York. He set his engineers to creating a chassis to go beneath Earl's roadster body -- a body that would be made not of sheet metal but of fiberglass.
The Corvette wasn't Keating's only coup. He also pushed to take the Bel Air, which was launched in 1950 as the top-of-the-line trim level of the Chevrolet Styleline DeLuxe series, and make it a special and separate model. That also happened for the 1955 model year, with Keating driving the new Chevrolet Bel Air convertible powered by Cole's new small-block V-8 and setting the pace for the start of the Indianapolis 500 in May 1955.
Keating had joined Chevrolet in 1916 as a distribution clerk in Tarry-town, N.Y. He spent three years with Durant Motor Co. but returned to Chevrolet in 1927, working in regional sales posts in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Pittsburgh and St. Louis before moving into the central office in 1937 as assistant general sales manager.
In 1945, he became Chevrolet's general sales manager, and in 1949 became the first person to rise through the sales department ranks and become the division's general manager. He held that post until 1956, when he became group executive vice president in charge of all GM passenger car divisions.
Keating also was the only active GM division general manager to be on the company's board of directors.
Under Keating, Chevrolet expanded its popularity by offering the first entry-level automatic transmission: the Powerglide, in 1950. That same year, Chevrolet regained the No. 1 model-year sales position and became the first American automotive division to reach the 2-million unit production level.