Alex Mair, who died last week at 91, was one of the few voices at the old General Motors who warned against the quality lapses that factored into the company's long market share slide.
Mair retired in 1986 after 47 years at GM, finishing his career as group executive in charge of the technical staffs. Earlier he ran both the Pontiac and GMC divisions. In a 1999 interview with Automotive News, Mair provided insights into GM's decline. This excerpt reflects how boom can plant the seeds of bust when the allure of short-term profits obscures long-term self interest.
GM was widely criticized for its poor quality in the 1970s. What efforts did you make to improve it?
In '75 I joined Pontiac, and in '76 we introduced the first generation of downsized cars. I didn't like the quality, and I gathered up a small group of people, maybe four or five, who saw as I did, to go into the plants and figure out where the problems were.
Well, we had a great year in 1977. We were selling cars like mad, and there was a shortage. Can you imagine telling a plant manager that his quality was bad when most of his phone calls were from some irate customer who wanted to know where the hell his Bonneville Brougham was?
Why didn't the growth of imports change things sooner?
"It was hard to sell the upper management on the quality of the Japanese cars. I brought in Japanese and German cars, and many of the managers and union people wouldn't even look at them. The excuses were amazing. They said, 'I was in the war,' or 'It's easier to build smaller cars.'
"We started a program internally at Chevrolet of dismantling cars. People say GM didn't care about quality. We knew where the gaps were."