Jim McDonald, who died this month at 87, rose through the ranks of a much different General Motors than the GM he retired from in 1987.
The Saginaw, Mich., native served as an engineering officer aboard two submarines in the Pacific during World War II, then climbed the ladder of GM during its glory days.
McDonald was general manager of Pontiac and Chevrolet in an era when heading a GM division was akin to running a small country. But by the time he became president and COO in February 1981, a month after Roger Smith was named chief executive, GM was under assault.
The automaker's quality was being roundly criticized, and Japanese imports had begun to claw away market share.
To his credit, McDonald was not a defensive Japan-basher, like a lot of top GM execs of the day. He knew there was a problem. In early 1982, McDonald drove home his point at a meeting of top executives. He was tired of finding oil stains on his driveway after driving home a new GM car.
McDonald chaired the meeting, and he opened it bluntly. "I told them: 'I don't care what's on the agenda. I'm just going to lay it on you,'" McDonald recalled in How General Motors Changed the World, a special issue that Automotive News published in 2008 to celebrate the company's 100th anniversary. "I said, 'I don't want any more leaks -- period.'
"'Furthermore,' I said, 'I don't want anybody to tell me how much it costs. I don't want any discussion. Just go back and do it.'"
The dripping oil that McDonald targeted was one symptom of a broad problem.
But attacking GM's quality shortcomings was no simple task. In GM's culture, meeting production schedules overwhelmed quality concerns. For instance, McDonald said in the 2008 interview that suppliers were under intense pressure to get parts to plants for the traditional September model year launch.
"We were all brought up to make damn sure that we had the parts there," he said. "Nobody said you shouldn't have quality, but we all understood that you should have the parts there."
In McDonald's view, the character of GM manufacturing has changed: "Before, we were an inspection organization. You built a product, and then you inspected it afterward."
He was among the first GM leaders to realize that the company's long-standing factory practices had become a liability.