Bob Eaton used to call and invite me out to the General Motors Tech Center to show me some car that was new, interesting and exciting.
Once, he had a four-door Chevy that was fitted with four-wheel steering. Not just any four-wheel steering; this one had a young engineer in the front seat with a computer, and the car could do anything you wanted to do with the rear wheels. It was a real kick to drive, almost like an amusement park ride.
Eaton always wanted to talk cars. He didn't get a lot of credit for that at Chrysler because he had plenty of guys who could talk cars, and he let them. But when he was running GM of Europe and expanding it into all parts of Eastern Europe after the collapse of communism, he still wanted to talk about Opels.
GM wanted Eaton to stay. He left in March 1992, just before the big shake-up. The board might have brought him back to the United States as president and COO. But Lee Iacocca made him a better offer: Bob Eaton could run his own car company. He didn't want to be No. 2, and who could blame him?
GM's board might have made Eaton president and Jack Smith chairman. If it had, GM would be a far different company today.
Eaton ran Chrysler so well that most folks will tell you that Bob Lutz ran Chrysler. Or Francois Castaing. Or Dennis Pawley or Tom Gale or Tom Stall-kamp. Eaton didn't care. He let them all do what they were good at, and for a while Chrysler had the best damn team in the world. But great automotive teams, like great football teams, somehow never seem to stay together forever.
Eaton looked at the horizon and envisioned it without the 'team.' He realized that Chrysler needed a partner, a merger. OK, he got a buyer. It was the joining of equals, but one bought the other.
Maybe it could have been the other way around, but I doubt it. Bob Eaton is a car guy, not a complicated financial manager. That's Juergen Schrempp. He might not know how to run DaimlerChrysler, but he has some very good people and he'll do more deals. DaimlerChrysler isn't complete yet.
Eaton survived Iacocca twice. There was a time when Iacocca was about to decide that maybe he'd wait a while longer to retire. And after Iacocca left, of course, he tried that ill-fated coup. When Eaton had to be a chairman, he was.
It's funny. DaimlerChrysler isn't as merged as most people thought it would be. But it's probably more merged than GM of North America and its Opel subsidiary.
So now Eaton is going to retire and hunt and fish and ski. Want to bet?
I figure he's going to enjoy life for about six months, and then his wife, Connie, will give anything to get him out of the house. And then one of the best automotive executives will be 60 and available.
DaimlerChrysler will be a different company without Eaton and that 'team.' But that happens. Tom Gale is still there, and Jim Holden should never be underestimated. He'll be good.
Bob Eaton's going hunting and fishing? We'll see.