The talks followed a public plea from Kerkorian's chief adviser, Jerry York, for GM to follow the same playbook Ghosn had used "so successfully" at Nissan in 1999. Renault-Nissan estimated a tie-up with GM could generate $10 billion in savings.
But after a tumultuous three months, the discussions collapsed over GM's demand for a multibillion-dollar payment to extend Ghosn's alliance onto a third continent. GM argued that it deserved such compensation to account for its much larger size.
Ghosn called the notion "ridiculous."
Ghosn's refusal to kowtow might have spared his reputation while simultaneously cementing GM's appointment in bankruptcy court three years later. Or perhaps it deprived Ghosn of the kind of legendary status Mulally achieved at Ford, had he been able to right the GM ship.
At the time, Ghosn confidently told associates he was up to the task.
"He's positive he can fix GM," David Magee, author of the book Turnaround: How Carlos Ghosn Rescued Nissan, told The New York Times in the days after the talks started. "The challenge at GM seems insurmountable, but it was no less, no different at Nissan when he went in there. Nissan was just smaller."
Several years earlier, Ghosn had passed on another opportunity to fix a dysfunctional Detroit automaker. He was the top choice when Bill Ford was desperately seeking an outsider to resuscitate his company, according to the 2012 book American Icon: Alan Mulally and the Fight to Save Ford Motor Co.
Ford offered Ghosn the position of COO, with a promise of later replacing Bill Ford as CEO. Ghosn flatly rejected the 2003 proposal at a restaurant in Tokyo, saying he needed complete authority from the get-go.
"Just tell Bill that I'm his man -- provided I'm CEO and chairman," Ghosn told Ford's human-resources chief, author Bryce Hoffman wrote.
Ford later whiffed on another attempt to hire Ghosn before bringing in Mulally from Boeing Co. in September 2006. It had asked Ghosn to consider Ford if the GM talks failed, but Ghosn elected to move on without a North American partner.
Now, as Ghosn steps back from his CEO duties, GM is in talks to sell its European operations to Renault's chief French rival, PSA Group. A deal would drop GM from third place in global sales to fourth -- behind Ghosn's Renault-Nissan.