When Tom Stephens announced plans last week to retire as General Motors' vice chairman and chief technology officer, CEO Dan Akerson called the 43-year GM veteran "an engineering icon within our company and within our industry."
What qualifies Stephens as an "icon?" Well, not only did he oversee a number of successful engine programs, including the Northstar V-8 and the Duramax diesel; he was a true-blue car guy in the old-school Detroit car exec tradition. He's the kind of gearhead who was tearing down engines as a teenager and amassing a decent car collection long before he became an auto titan.
Some highlights of Stephens' car-guy life:
-- When he was 10, Stephens turned a pile of old plumbing pipes, a pair of hard rubber tires and a sputtering old lawn mower engine into a minibike. It would go only about 5 mph, but young Tom immediately began tinkering to make it better.
-- His first car was a '64 Pontiac GTO he bought when he was 20. "A guy defaulted on his loan and left the GTO stuck in a muddy field in Flint (Mich.)," Stephens once told us. "It had a 389 Pontiac engine in it. And for most 20-year-old kids that would've been heaven. Not me. I had the hot-rodder gene kicking in, and the first thing I did was pull the engine. I put in a 427 L88, along with a Muncie M22 Rockcrusher transmission."
-- A few years later he transplanted the suspension system from a '78 Pontiac Trans Am into a 1970 Buick 455 Gran Sport hardtop, then modified the car's rear axle, steering system and front axles to the point where it handled like a sports car.
-- His collection included four Corvettes, a rumbling 1966 Chevy Impala convertible with a 504-cubic-inch dragster engine and a bright-red 1993 Cadillac Allante -- the first car to feature the Northstar engine he designed.