Dollie Cole, spirited, outspoken wife of former GM president, dies at 84

Dollie Cole at the Indianapolis 500 in 2005.

Photo credit: INDIANAPOLIS MOTOR SPEEDWAY
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Dollie Cole, the colorful, outspoken widow of former General Motors President Ed Cole and a major champion of the National Corvette Museum, died Aug. 24 in Lockhart, Texas. She was 84.

A former model -- including an appearance in a print ad for Dr. Pepper -- she helped establish a high standard for the wife of a Detroit 3 executive when she married Ed Cole, a GM group vice president, in 1964.

Ed Cole was the former chief engineer for Chevrolet, where he led development of the Corvair, and former general manager of Chevrolet at the time of their marriage. He became GM president in 1967 and held that position until 1974.

His capacity for work was so great that Dollie Cole once quipped to a writer that their wedding proclamation should have included, "I now pronounce you man and wife and briefcase."

Her husband’s high-profile role at the world’s biggest car company gave Dollie Cole a unique platform.

She was behind the wheel when the first airbag-equipped GM car, a 1974 cinnamon-colored Oldsmobile Toronado, rolled off the production line in 1973 at a plant in Lansing, Mich.

She had reportedly inspired research into airbags when she complained of having to use a seat belt while wearing a fur coat in a car with her husband in the 1960s.

Ed Cole, who died in a plane crash in Michigan in 1977, had a famous motto: “Kick the hell out of the status quo.” Dollie Cole lived that motto.

“The strongest muscle in my body is my mouth,” she told The New York Times in 1971. "I'm sure a lot of times he (Ed Cole) wishes he could put a sock in my mouth."

Dollie and Ed Cole, right, with Michigan Gov. George Romney and his wife, Lenore, left, in 1967.

Photo credit: GM ARCHIVES

On one occasion, Cole called into Phil Donahue’s nationally televised talk show to invite a guest, one of GM's toughest critics, to visit the automaker's product development operations before passing judgment, according to The New York Times.

“Why don’t you come see before you are so fast to criticize?” she said.

Cole also once challenged Arthur Hailey, the author of “Wheels,” a 1971 novel about the inner workings of the auto industry that suggested auto executives were fond of “running around” while on company time. The book inspired a mini-series on NBC starring Rock Hudson and Lee Remick.

“Auto executives aren’t spring chickens, nor do they have time to play around,” she said. “They’re busy making a corporation run. They’re totally committed.”

Cole, a frequent presence in the society pages of Detroit's newspapers, was often described as the Martha Mitchell of the auto industry. She kept abreast of the industry by regularly reading Motor Trend, Hot Rod and Automotive News, she once told The New York Times.

An accredited auto test driver and airplane pilot, she was the first woman to ride in the pace car, a Hurst/Oldsmobile Cutlass, during the Indy 500, in 1972.

“I hope I’ve never wasted my life just existing,” Cole told the Palm Beach Post in 1972, when she was preparing to launch a daytime talk show called “Dollie.”

The show, taped in New York, was aimed toward a female audience, but it was neither “feministic nor chauvinistic,” she said.

While a senior editor of Curtis Publishing, she wrote about the corporate world in a humorous way, and penned a book, “Piston Power by Motor Mouth.”

When her husband retired from GM in 1974, Cole surprised him by purchasing the desk he had used in the offices on the 14th floor of the General Motors building in Detroit. She used the same desk for years at her ranch in Lockhart, Texas.

"Edward turned on the lights in the General Motors building" every morning, she once said.

Dollie Cole, right, with Dave Hill, the third person to serve as chief engineer for the Chevrolet Corvette, in an undated photo.

Photo credit: GM ARCHIVES

Dollie Ann Fechner was born on May 13, 1930, in Fort Worth, Texas. She married U.S. Naval Officer William McVey in 1948 while studying therapy for mentally ill people in college. She and McVey divorced in 1963 after having three children.

After their marriage in 1964, Ed Cole adopted his new wife’s two youngest children, and they had one child of their own.

After Ed Cole's death, she found widowhood in Detroit uncomfortable and eventually moved back to Texas. But she never gave up the opportunity to promote GM and its brands.

Dollie Cole was a director of the National Corvette Museum when it opened in Bowling Green, Ky., in 1994 and became chair-elect in 1996. She later served two years as chairman and two years as past-chairman on the museum’s board.

“She was just truly an outstanding visionary,” said Wendell Strode, executive director of the museum. “She understood the potential vision for the museum.”

Cole had a way of bringing people together to figure out what was best for the museum, Strode added.

“No personal agendas,” he said. “As Dollie has said, ‘Egos are to be left at the door.’”

Ed Cole, who spent 10 years at Chevrolet, including the brand’s post-war glory days, was inducted into the Corvette Hall of Fame in 1998. He had two children from his first marriage, including David Cole, former head of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Dollie Cole was also a member of the Corvair Society and named a Distinguished Woman of Northwood University in 1995.

"She brought a vision and voice of hope and optimism to everyone who knew and worked with her," Dr. Keith Pretty, Northwood University's president and CEO, said in a statement. "Her example as an entrepreneur, actress, community leader and philanthropist will be felt for a long time to come.”

Son Joe Cole described her as tough and determined.

“She was working in a man’s world,” he said, but she was “kind and giving.”

You can reach Hannah Lutz at hlutz@crain.com.


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