As he traveled in the American South looking for a site for the new plant to build the Mercedes-Benz sport-utility, he registered at hotels as 'Peter' rather than Dieter. He didn't want his German name to tip off communities that the Germans were coming.
Today, Dieter Zetsche will use all of his American experience and Americanized demeanor as he tries to win the trust of the great American industrial power that he's being sent to fix.
Zetsche, 47, becomes the new Chrysler group CEO, taking on a demoralized group of Chrysler employees, skeptical dealers and a once-loyal supplier community that believes Chrysler's impeccable supplier policies are being sacrificed for short-term price-cutting.
He will have to re-instill cost discipline in an operation that has spent too much money during its two years as part of a German company.
A protege of former Daimler-Benz Chairman Edzard Reuter, Zetsche has earned the respect of DaimlerChrysler Chairman Juergen Schrempp in various posts.
In 1992, Zetsche became chief engineer while Mercedes-Benz was suffering some scorn for having launched a bulky, overweight new S class. He was a major player in Mercedes passenger-car chief Juergen Hubbert's cultural revolution that turned Mercedes from a stodgy maker of premium luxury cars to a more daring company participating in many new segments.
As product-development chief, Zetsche introduced front-wheel drive to Mercedes with the innovative A class, led creation of the M-class sport-utility and conceived the Smart car project.
An electrical engineer by training, Zetsche has shown the ability to lead both Germans and Americans, while cutting through bureaucratic resistance.
Both his Stuttgart colleagues and former Chrysler officials say he's the best person for the Chrysler job.
'He's the best of the guys,' says former Chrysler President and Vice Chairman Robert Lutz, who describes Zetsche as smart and funny.