The loss of friends and family was a grim reality for people everywhere — including in the auto industry — in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic took its toll. But the auto world said farewell this year to many familiar faces as a result of other circumstances as well: Some after long lives and inspirational careers in the business, and others unexpectedly in mid-service to the industry. Here are a few.
Industry bid farewell to many in 2020
Owen Bieber, president of the UAW during a period of Detroit 3 decline and rising nonunion international automaker influence, died Feb. 17 at age 90. Bieber spent 12 years as head of the union that gave him his first leadership role at age 19 as a shop steward in the parts factory where he and his father worked.
From the start of his leadership in 1983, Bieber embraced new labor ideas to help make the U.S. industry more competitive in the face of rising Japanese market share. He championed a General Motors contract that tied the pay of Saturn factory workers in Tennessee to performance targets, and he signed on for more flexible work rules on shop floors.
He also is credited for diversifying the union's recruiting efforts into new fields, such as government operations and new industries.
John Grettenberger, who helped restore Cadillac's flagging image during his 13 years as general manager in the 1980s and 1990s, died March 17 after a bout with cancer. He was 82.
Cadillac was reeling from technical and marketing missteps in the 1980s, including failed diesel engines, problems with Cadillac's V-8-6-4 engine and a period of stodgy designs. But within three years of his arrival in 1984, the brand's image was changing. In 1990, Cadillac won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award — the only automaker to ever win the prestigious honor. New products and new engines were on the way, and Grettenberger began lobbying GM directors to approve bold plans for an ultraluxury SUV to take on Range Rover and other upscale off-road vehicles.
The seed he planted, for the Cadillac Escalade SUV that debuted in 1998, has grown to become one of the most profitable and important nameplates in GM's lineup today.
James McLernon, a one-time auto plant assembly worker who rose to open Volkswagen's first U.S. assembly plant, died March 21 at 92.
McLernon worked the line at General Motors' plant in Tonawanda, N.Y., while studying industrial engineering at the University of Buffalo.
He became an engineer at GM and rose through the ranks to become general manufacturing manager at Chevrolet in 1969, overseeing operations at 24 component plants and two assembly plants that collectively employed some 88,000 people.
He was recruited by VW in 1976 to lead the opening of its assembly plant in Westmoreland, Pa., for which he was named CEO of VW's newly formed holding company, Volkswagen of America. In 1993, McLernon was one of the founding investors in creating the U.S. supplier American Axle.
Bob Garff, chairman of Ken Garff Automotive Group in Salt Lake City, brought COVID-19 close to home for the U.S. industry when he died of the coronavirus on March 29. One of the industry's first losses to the pandemic, Garff and his wife, Katharine, both tested positive for COVID-19 after returning to Utah from a trip to Palm Springs, Calif.
The 77-year-old retailer, who for two years was speaker of the Utah House of Representatives, ran the nation's No. 10 auto group, with 49 dealerships in five states, according to Automotive News' annual ranking of top auto retailers.
Garff also was chairman of the organizing committee that brought the 2002 Olympic Winter Games to Salt Lake City.
Hal "Tex" Earnhardt Jr. was a rodeo rider, high-school dropout and a pump attendant at his family's gas station who went on to create Earnhardt Auto Centers, a group of 23 dealerships representing 17 brands, in the Phoenix and Las Vegas metro markets.
Earnhardt died April 19 at the age of 89.
Including a cluster of service centers and body shops, Earnhardt employed 3,000 people at the time of his death.
He wore cowboy boots and a cowboy hat as his daily attire. He entered the car business at age 20 when he borrowed the money to buy a Ford dealership in Chandler, Ariz. He would become known around the Southwest for his advertising tag line, "That ain't no bull."
Gale Halderman was a young designer out of the Dayton Art Institute in Ohio in the 1950s when he was hired for Ford Motor Co.'s Lincoln-Mercury studio. He soon moved to the Ford brand design studio, where he would be tapped for a secret project: designing an affordable, sporty car that would become the Mustang.
The Mustang is recognized today as one of Ford's milestone achievements after more than a half century of continuous production. But in the early 1960s, the company's corporate mood was conservative. Ford Division's general manager at the time, Lee Iacocca, launched the pony car project in secrecy to avoid having it quashed. And Halderman, already busy turning out fresh designs for existing Ford products by day, had to work on the Mustang project at home at night. He died on April 29 of cancer at 87.
Jack Pohanka, who pioneered the concept of "dual dealerships" through his Washington D.C.-based Pohanka Automotive Group, died May 17 at 92.
Pohanka also is credited with coining the now common label "megadealer" to describe auto retailers with multiple brands and locations.
Pohanka, who was named an Automotive News Visionary Dealer in 2009, said he was the first U.S. auto dealer to sell both foreign and domestic vehicles. His domestic-brand family retail business, one of the nation's oldest, operating since 1919, eagerly recruited Honda, Acura and Lexus after he dualed a Fiat franchise with his Oldsmobile store. He told Automotive News: "A dealer has to hedge his bets. You can't have all your eggs in one basket."
Pohanka became dealer principal of the business in 1958 after the death of his father. Today, the group employs about 1,600 people across 17 new-vehicle stores and one nonfranchised store in Maryland, Virginia, Delaware and Texas.
John Mooney, part of a small group of engineers who invented the catalytic converter, died on June 16 from complications from a stroke. He was 90.
Mooney was awarded 17 patents during a four-decade career with Engelhard Corp. of New Jersey, a Fortune 500 company that is now owned by Germany's BASF. One of those patents was for the three-way catalytic converter, arguably one of the most important inventions in auto industry history. Introduced at the height of 1970s public air-quality anxiety, the small device is now ubiquitous across all passenger vehicles, commercial vehicles and even lawnmowers, eliminating much of the exhaust pollution of past decades' engines.
Later in his career, Mooney also helped the United Nations persuade African nations to ban the use of leaded gasoline. He retired from Engelhard in 2003.
Fred Schwab, a Detroiter who helped bring Porsche back from collapse in the early 1990s, died July 9 following a brief battle with cancer. He was 81.
Schwab was a former accountant and later an executive with the German supplier and trailer manufacturer Fruehauf. He was recruited to Porsche in 1985 to serve in an administrative and planning role at a time when sales were in decline.
When he became Porsche Cars North America CEO in 1992, after the trough of the U.S. recession, the brand racked up sales of just 4,115. In 2003, the year Schwab retired, Porsche sold 28,417 vehicles.
During his 10 years as CEO, he steered a management overhaul by hiring former Toyota managers to instill the Japanese automaker's vaunted lean operating methods and help improve Porsche product quality. Under his watch, Porsche introduced key new models in North America, including the mid-engine Boxster roadster.
Glenn Gardner, a key Chrysler engineer on the 1980s team that developed the industry's first minivan and who later led Chrysler's large-car development, died Aug. 7 at 84.
Gardner was the first chairman of Diamond-Star Motors Corp., the joint-venture auto production company created in the 1980s by Chrysler and Mitsubishi Motors in Normal, Ill.
That role, which Gardner took on in 1985 and held for four years, was supposed to be largely a job of guardianship — looking after Chrysler's 50 percent stake in the undeveloped site. But Gardner pulled valuable learning out of the work with the Japanese automaker.
Gardner showed Chrysler the value of Mitsubishi's methods of project management and the Japanese industry's approach to empowering teams to make decisions. Gardner was a key architect of Chrysler's efforts to overhaul product development and tap suppliers to lower costs and lead times.
Cesare Romiti, a firebrand Italian industrialist who led Fiat through a period of labor and social turmoil in the 1970s and 1980s, died on Aug. 18 at 97.
Romiti held several roles in Italian industry before being recruited to Fiat in 1974 by its chief, Giovanni Agnelli. By 1980, Romiti was CEO, steering the nation's biggest employer through a number of strikes that targeted business executives with violence.
Romiti blamed the unrest on ultra-left wing influences and Italy's Communist Party. He brought the strikes to a close with recognition that Fiat needed to close down unprofitable factory capacity in Turin, and subsequently led Fiat to launch new models and return to profitability. He stepped down as chairman in 1998.
Osamu Masuko, who led Mitsubishi out of a global quality scandal and into a financial tie-up with Nissan Motor Co., died from heart complications on Aug. 27 at age 71.
His death came just three weeks after he abruptly resigned as Mitsubishi Motors chairman citing health concerns.
Masuko was at the helm of Mitsubishi during the 2016 scandal in which the automaker was found to have overstated the mileage on its vehicles. At the height of the furor, Nissan lent its smaller rival a lifeline, offering it $2.2 billion for a 34 percent controlling stake. Nissan's involvement made Mitsubishi the third partner in the global Renault-Nissan alliance, giving Mitsubishi access to new vehicle plans, resources and technologies.
Bob Rohrman, who built his namesake Midwestern dealership group from a single used-car lot in Lafayette, Ind., died Sept. 1 at 87.
Named one of 50 Automotive News Visionary Dealers in 2009, Rohrman started his franchise operation with a Toyota store he said he opened after responding to a magazine ad. Today, Bob Rohrman Auto Group operates 25 dealerships in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.
Rohrman told Automotive News in 2010 that he opened the Toyota store after seeing an ad featuring a yellow Toyota Corona. He had been looking for a new-car franchise and heard that Toyotas were selling well in California.
Rohrman said he called the 800 number in the ad, and a month later he was selling Toyotas.
Bob Rohrman Auto Group ranks No. 46 on Automotive News' list of the top 150 dealership groups in the U.S., retailing 19,455 new vehicles and 18,619 used vehicles in 2019, with revenue of $1.2 billion.
Heinrich Baumann, head of the German exhaust and thermal supplier Eberspaecher Gruppe, died of a sudden cardiac event on Sept. 18 while hiking in the mountains in southern Bavaria. He was 54.
Baumann was an electrical engineer by education and a management consultant with Ernst & Young in Stuttgart. But he was also the great-great-grandson of Eberspaecher's founder. He joined the family business in 2004, succeeding his father, Günter Baumann, as managing partner.
During his tenure, Baumann doubled the company's employment to 10,000 at 80 global locations. Eberspaecher posted a 7.7 percent sales increase in 2019 to $5.56 billion.
Rick Case, a record-breaking Florida car dealer and an early booster for several import brands in the U.S. market, died Sept. 21 of complications from cancer. He was 77.
The founder and CEO of Rick Case Automotive Group opened some of the first U.S. dealerships for brands such as Toyota, Honda, Acura, Hyundai and Kia. Sales at many of his stores set brand records — a gleeful career-long goal for the retailer.
He opened his first dealership, a used-car store called Moxie Motors, at age 19 in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. In 1966, he opened one Toyota's first U.S. dealerships. By age 29, he had amassed a chain of motorcycle stores.
Case and his wife, Rita, moved from Akron to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in 1985. They opened one of the country's first Hyundai dealerships. Their Acura dealership was that brand's highest-volume store several years in a row.
Case's empire, now in its 59th year, has grown to include 16 dealerships in Florida, Georgia and Ohio, and more than 1,300 employees. The group is ranked No. 35 on the Automotive News list of the top 150 dealership groups based in the U.S., with 2019 retail new-vehicle sales of 22,168.
Don Rosen, who assembled a group of Philadelphia automobile dealerships, died Oct. 18 from complications from endocarditis. He was 81.
Rosen began with a Cadillac store in Philadelphia in 1979, a dealership he once told the local press that he acquired after being treated indifferently by its salesmen.
He provided the voice in advertising for his expanding dealership group, making him a well-known name in the area, and he also became a recognized philanthropist during his career.
David Braley, owner of the Canadian engine components and castings supplier Orlick Industries, died Oct. 26 after being hospitalized with an undisclosed illness for several months. He was 79.
Braley began his business by buying a small Ontario machine company in 1969 and targeting the auto industry for growth. Other acquisitions included a tool and die shop and a castings operation. Orlick now counts Honda Motor Co. as its biggest customer.
Along the way, the Montreal native also acquired a number of professional sports teams, including several Canadian Football League teams and two soccer teams. He also was a member of the Canadian Senate, from 2010 to 2013.
Cheri Fleming, an Acura dealer in Valencia, Calif., died on Nov. 16 following a brief illness. She was 69.
Originally a tanning salon owner, Fleming married tanning equipment salesman Don Fleming, according to local press coverage, and the couple later entered auto retailing together.
In 1997, the Flemings acquired Valencia Acura, Acura's lowest-ranked store in sales and customer satisfaction nationally. With Cheri Fleming serving as dealer principal, the Flemings turned the store into one of Acura's top-performing dealerships nationally, and in 2006 she was a finalist in the American International Automobile Dealers Association Dealer of the Year award.
Art Schwartz, a former labor negotiator for General Motors, died Dec. 12 after a monthlong battle with COVID-19. He was 72.
Schwartz started his career teaching labor relations at the University of Michigan before joining GM in 1985. He was general director of GM's labor relations staff where he negotiated with the UAW, IUE-CWA and United Steelworkers of America. He also was head of labor planning and responsible for designing and administering all of the automaker's special attrition programs.
He played a critical role in union negotiations during GM's 2009 federal rescue. He retired from the company in 2010.
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