Alex Mair began and ended his 47-year career at GM with the company at a crossroads.
The 78-year-old native of Flint, Mich., started attending classes at General Motors Institute and building Chevrolet engines in GM's Plant No. 4 just two years after the 1937 Flint sit-down strike.
He retired as a vice president in 1986 as Japanese imports, a disastrous reorganization and slumping quality threatened to ruin GM.
In between these two crises: a world war, the resurgence of GM as the dominant automaker, tailfins, muscle cars, the Chevy Corvair and Vega, and the rise of safety and emissions regulations.
'We really had fun,' says Mair without a trace of sarcasm. 'It was a good time to work at General Motors.'
After spending three years aboard a landing craft delivering tanks to the Philippines and Okinawa, Mair returned to a job in Chevrolet's drafting rooms. His work on Chevrolet's Powerglide semiautomatic transmission helped earn him a special assignment in 1950 to build 18-cylinder Allison aircraft engines for Korea-bound bombers.
In 1952, GM reassigned him to Chevrolet's truck department, his home for the next 13 years. Stints followed as chief engineer of Chevrolet and general manager of GMC Truck and Coach and Pontiac.
Mair is particularly proud that he never forgot his family's blue-collar roots despite his rise through GM management. He spoke with Staff Reporter Aaron Robinson about his years at GM. Edited excerpts follow.
How did GM change after the sit-down strike, and why do you think the company still has labor problems?
I remember going down to watch the strike as a teen-ager, but by the time I got to GM, it was over, so I can't really say how the company was changed. I never fully understood the conflict between the company and the union. All of our friends and relatives were hourly, and they owned their homes and cars. A big problem is that not enough people in management get into the plants. They have not noted the fact that most of the people in the factory are just like them in that they want to make a good product. The difference is that the plant workers have less control. When I was at GM, there was always the feeling in management that a lot of the company's problems with productivity and quality were caused by labor when, in fact, it was the other way around.
What do you remember best about the muscle car era?
Talk about having a good time. (Chevrolet General Manager) Ed Cole was a big proponent and he was really fun to work with. In '62 we had the 409 and 348, which were really rugged engines. Later we had the 327 and the SS 396. We were also building 1,000-hp Can Am engines in Tonawanda at the rate of two per day. In those days Chevrolet had a unique engineering department; it could really do almost anything.
How did you come by the job as chief engineer for passenger cars, which was your first big job?
When Pete Estes came over to Chevrolet in '65, he installed the practice of the Saturday morning meeting out at the GM Proving Grounds. We were all out there one day, and they had these '64 Chevelles with prototype 396 engines in them. Estes wanted to go out to the east-west straightway and drag race. Nobody would volunteer to race the new general manager, so I put up my hand and said, 'I'll do it.' Do you know what? I beat him, so we switched cars to make sure it wasn't his car, and I beat him again. He said to me, 'What the hell are you doing in the truck group?' The next thing I knew, they had announced I was being promoted to run passenger cars. I couldn't believe what was happening; I thought I had a big job when I was working in the drafting room.
In today's GM, the divisions no longer make their own cars, and general managers are far less powerful. Do you think this is better or worse?
I don't know. I worked for 40 years under a distinct plan where you knew whom you worked for and where you stood. I wouldn't even know how to operate in the current environment, how the information flows. When I started, Chevrolet made most of the parts in the car. Chevrolet did everything, and you always knew who was in charge.
GM was widely criticized for its poor quality in the 1970s. What efforts did you make to improve it?
In '75 I joined Pontiac and in '76 we introduced the first generation of downsized cars. I didn't like the quality and I gathered up a small group of people, maybe four or five who saw as I did, to go into the plants and figure out where the problems were. Well, we had a great year in 1977. We were selling cars like mad and there was a shortage. Can you imagine telling a plant manager that his quality was bad when most of his phone calls were from some irate customer who wanted to know where the hell his Bonneville Brougham was?
Why didn't the growth of imports change things sooner?
It was hard to sell the upper management on the quality of the Japanese cars. I brought in Japanese and German cars, and many of the managers and union people wouldn't even look at them. The excuses were amazing. They said, 'I was in the war,' or 'It's easier to build smaller cars.' We started a program internally at Chevrolet of dismantling cars. People say GM didn't care about quality. We knew where the gaps were. We had it more detailed than any company I know.
The 1970 Chevrolet Vega was GM's first attempt to build a modern compact car, but it was a disaster. What is your side of the Vega story?
Chevrolet was running really strongly (in the late 1960s), but the Corvair had a lot of little problems. By the time it was canceled, it was a pretty good car, but it didn't fit Chevrolet's pattern of being durable and high quality. When the Vega came along, (the GM board) didn't want Chevy to do another small car, so they enlisted the corporate engineering staff. The two major stakeholders, Chevrolet and Fisher Body, had less say in the car than they usually had. Well, the corporate staff just didn't have the resources. It was an aluminum engine with an iron head, and the cost pressures were incredibly high. A lot of manufacturing techniques were added in later, and key people were being pulled off to do other projects. Chevy was given the task of taking a car designed by corporate and turning it into a real car. It's like having some other family tell your kids what to do.
Why do you think GM, even though it is profitable, has never recovered its market share?
It's like the Jamaican bobsleigh team. The gap between them and the winner wasn't that big. But you can't win the bobsleigh event unless all the elements are working together. If you miss badly on any one thing, you can't be the leader. What an auto company needs to do is earn high profits, but it must also have quality and the right product. The board was farther away from the situation than they should have been. The understanding that we were being beaten took too long.