Allen Breed was best known as the founder of one of the world's biggest auto parts suppliers. But he thought of himself in a simpler way: as an engineer with a hunger to create and improve.
Breed, chairman emeritus of Breed Technologies Inc. in Lakeland, Fla., died of cancer Dec. 13 at 72. His death followed by just two months his induction into the Automotive Hall of Fame in Dearborn, Mich., an honor that seemed to surprise and humble him.
Breed, a manufacturing and design engineer by trade, started his own company in 1961 to create triggering mechanisms for military weapons. But it was his realization that his devices could be adapted for automobiles that brought him fame and fortune.
In 1968, Breed produced an electromechanical vehicle crash sensor that could trigger an auto airbag. Over the years, Breed successfully convinced some automakers that airbags were feasible safety features, and that the sensors he invented were more reliable than his competitors' more high-tech electronic sensors. But the electromechanical sensors have since fallen out of favor, and Breed itself has gone electronic.
By 1994, as airbags became common across the industry, Breed's products brought in $329 million in original-equipment sales a year. With his wife, Johnnie Cordell Breed, at the business helm, the corporation invested in overseas expansion and acquisition. Last year the company had $1.4 billion in sales and 14,000 employees.
The company encountered financial trouble last year, and in September filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Despite a year-long battle with cancer, Breed traveled to Detroit in October to attend the Hall of Fame ceremony.