The free-speaking Texan, now 76, blames Chevy's doldrums in the 1980s on an out-of-touch GM design team — capable on one hand of leaps of gorgeous car-making, such as the Corvette, but responsible on the other for incomprehensibly dull cars.
He blames GM's financial leadership for focusing on saving pennies rather than spending on the company's proven assets, such as the Chevrolet name. And he blames GM top management of the day for losing its focus on what consumers wanted: great cars and trucks.
Perkins, known throughout his career as an old-school bulldog who favored cowboy boots, began his love affair with Chevrolet as a small child in Texas, sitting in his father's lap and steering the family's 1938 Chevrolet.
"I dreamed of owning my own Chevy store," he says. "By the time I was 15 or 16 years old I was probably as good a Chevrolet mechanic as there was in the state of Texas. But I had a hell of a time even getting an interview."
After a tour of military duty, he spent afternoons in the lobby of the Dallas regional office, looking for somebody to shake hands with. In 1960, he begged his way into a warehouse job scrapping warranty parts.
There followed a long series of promotions, to regional posts and management slots, and to Detroit for a corporate post. He handled dealer relations. He became general manager of both Buick and Chevrolet, and in 1984 was wooed away by Toyota.
In the 1980s, the Japanese company treated him like a king. He rose fast there, eventually becoming group vice president for the North American subsidiary. In that post he was assigned a mission known internally as "the F Project." That would be Toyota's entry into the U.S. luxury market with a new brand called Lexus.
Coming home to GM in 1989 after the Lexus startup, the thing that struck Perkins most, he says, was the crestfallen nature of Chevrolet's employees.
"It was not the Chevrolet I loved by any means," he says. "You didn't get that feeling of pride of association, of being part of something special.
"What I saw was all kinds of silos. The salespeople didn't spend any time talking to the marketing people. The marketing people didn't talk to the product people. But it wasn't an attitude that started with the rank and file. It was because that was the way they were being managed. The team was terribly demoralized."
Things had changed while he had been at Toyota. "I wasn't there, so I can't say how it all happened," he says. "But you don't win with poor morale. So I wanted to address that as quickly as possible."
Perkins called together employee councils as a bottom-up effort to find out what was bothering people. He did the same thing for dealers. He asked the councils and individuals to send him notes to tell him what was wrong, and to share their ideas on how to improve things. Some employees wrote, others called the new boss. Nearly 2,000 complaints and suggestions came in over the next few months.
He also wanted employees to show the public that despite its troubles, Chevrolet was something to be proud of. He ordered cases of gold lapel pins with "Chevy Proud" written across the Chevy bow tie and handed them out to employees, field reps, dealers and customers.