James McLernon, a longtime auto industry executive with a specialization in manufacturing who rose from the assembly line to become a top executive with Chevrolet, opened Volkswagen's first U.S. assembly plant, and was a founder and past chairman of the board of American Axle, died March 21 at his home in Michigan. He was 92.
After serving in the Navy Air Corps during World War II, McLernon was an hourly worker at General Motors' Tonawanda, N.Y., plant 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 GM's Chevrolet Division executive in 1969.
In 1976, McLernon joined what was then Volkswagen Manufacturing Corp. of America as its first president, overseeing the completion of an unfinished Chrysler plant into the German automaker's New Stanton, Pa., assembly plant. In 1978, he was named president and CEO of a newly formed umbrella group for Volkswagen's North American operations, Volkswagen of America. McLernon left Volkswagen in 1982.
In 1993, McLernon was one of the founding investors in American Axle and oversaw the purchase with four partners, including the late Richard Dauch, of five General Motors axle and forging plants. He retired as the supplier's chairman in 1997.