DETROIT -- Dealers and industry leaders today remembered Robert Stempel as a true "car guy" and a gentleman who took charge of General Motors during a tumultuous period in the early 1990s.
Stempel, who died Saturday, May 7, at age 77, was named GM's chairman and CEO in 1990 -- much to the delight of dealers, remembered Gordon Stewart, owner of four Chevrolet stores in Michigan and Florida.
Stewart said Stempel was "square shooter" with GM dealers.
"It was a chaotic time," Stewart said. "The board was in a chaotic state…but the dealers liked him very much."
David Cole, chairman emeritus at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich., said Stempel was chairman during an era when a lagging economy forced GM to slash costs and lay off workers, making his tenure as chairman difficult.
"One of the unfortunate things is there wasn't a big period of transition from working with Roger Smith to running the company," Cole said.
A wartime executive
Stempel became chairman just one day before Iraq invaded Kuwait, triggering the Persian Gulf War and sending the U.S. economy into a recession that would impact car sales dramatically. GM lost $4.45 billion, and Stempel was forced to lay off thousands of workers and close dozens of plants.
Stewart said he was with Stempel at the Detroit auto show the night war broke out. Stempel asked for a moment of silence at the show, Stewart said.
"He was a great human being, a real quality human," Stewart said. "He had my complete admiration."
Stempel began his career at GM as an engineer in the Oldsmobile chassis department in the late 1950s. He developed the engine and transmission mounting system for the 1966 Oldsmobile Tornado -- the first American made front-wheel-drive car built in nearly 30 years.
A real 'car guy'
Cole recalled how, during his time as a student at the University of Michigan, Stempel came to speak to a group of students about the technology used in building the front-wheel-drive system. Cole said Stempel spoke articulately before the 150 students and kept them "spellbound" for the duration of his 45-minute talk.
"It was so clear at that time as he talked to the group, just how articulate and effective an engineering leader he'd be," Cole said.
Stempel's background in the industry won him praise from dealers, Ted Linhart, CEO of Dominion Auto Group in Richmond, Va. said.
"He was a car guy," Linhart said of Stempel. "We dealers love the phrase 'car guy.' We don't use it indiscriminately."
Linhart said Stempel approached problems with an "engineering mind-set," adding: "He was very systematic and pragmatic in his approach."
Stempel resigned from GM in October 1992, dealing with a heart condition and increasing opposition from the board of directors. He went on to become chairman of Energy Conversion Devices Inc., a Detroit-area manufacturer of solar panels and batteries.
Inventor Stanford Ovshinsky, founder of Energy Conversion Devices, told the Associated Press that Stempel understood the necessity for the United States to become less dependent on foreign oil.
"He knew, like I did, there could easily be electric cars if you had the batteries. The battery was the missing link, and that is why he came to me," Ovshinsky said.
Ovshinsky added that Stempel was "the best engineer I've ever worked with in the world."