June 16, 2024

Robert Stempel, an Engineer Who Led G.M., Dies at 77

His death was confirmed by G. M., which did not specify the cause. He lived in Loxahatchee, Fla.

Mr. Stempel, who began his career at G.M. in 1958 as a chassis detailer for the Oldsmobile division, succeeded Roger B. Smith as chief executive in August 1990. But after closing plants and cutting tens of thousands of jobs in an effort to restore profitability following Mr. Smith’s much-publicized failings, Mr. Stempel was ousted in October 1992 in a boardroom coup.

He later became chairman of Energy Conversion Devices, a suburban Detroit company that builds solar panels and created the battery technology used in hybrid cars.

As chief executive of General Motors, Mr. Stempel approved the EV1 electric car, which became the subject of the documentary “Who Killed the Electric Car?” after G.M. later canceled the project. The EV1 would have been the first modern-day mass-produced electric vehicle.

Stanford Ovshinksy, the inventor who founded Energy Conversion Devices, described Mr. Stempel as one of the auto industry’s earliest advocates for electric cars. He said Mr. Stempel was pleased to see automakers beginning to introduce electric vehicles, including the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid.

Mr. Stempel, a car enthusiast who enjoyed going to auto races, told Business Week in 1988 that he drove to work in a Pontiac Bonneville SSE because “it’s black, it’s good-looking and it’s fast.”

Robert Carl Stempel was born July 15, 1933, in Trenton. As a teenager, he earned money to pay for college by working as a garage mechanic in Bloomfield, N.J., and often fixed cars for fellow students while earning his degree.

He was hired by G.M. three years after earning a mechanical engineering degree from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, where he was a 6-foot-4 tackle on the football team.

Mr. Stempel was instrumental in G.M.’s development of the first front-wheel-drive car in the modern American automobile industry, the 1966 Oldsmobile Toronado. He designed the Toronado’s front suspension and its engine and transmission mounting system, according to a G.M. biography.

He attended night classes at Michigan State University to receive a master’s degree in business administration in 1970 and became Oldsmobile’s assistant chief engineer in 1972. A year later, according to his G.M. biography, the company’s president, Ed Cole, selected Mr. Stempel as a special assistant and charged him with overseeing development of emission control devices. From that assignment came the catalytic converter, which vehicles now use to reduce exhaust emissions.

Mr. Stempel later worked as director of engineering for the Chevrolet brand, general manager of the Pontiac division (which was shut down last year) and managing director of G.M.’s European division, Adam Opel A.G.

In 1975, Mr. Stempel’s 13-year-old son, Timothy, was kidnapped while skateboarding near the family’s home in Bloomfield Township, Mich., an affluent suburb. The abductors, who later said they had chosen their target at random, kept the boy for more than two days in the trunk of their car until releasing him, unharmed, after Mr. Stempel paid a $150,000 ransom.

Two men were later convicted of the crime, and the police recovered $137,000 of the ransom money.

Mr. Stempel returned to Detroit from Germany in 1982 as general manager of Chevrolet and was named an executive vice president of G.M. and a member of its board in 1986. A year later he was promoted to president and chief operating officer.

Only the second engineer to become G.M.’s top executive, he lasted 26 months before board members became impatient with the pace of the company’s reorganization amid billions of dollars in losses and forced him to retire.

The day after Mr. Stempel took over the company, Iraq invaded Kuwait, helping to push the United States into a recession that slashed vehicle sales, prompting him to joke about having “one good day as chairman,” according to a 1992 profile by Reuters.

He was chairman of Energy Conversion for nearly 12 years until retiring in 2007. Most recently he was working on a new project that aims to produce solar panels at half the cost of those available today.

Mr. Stempel is survived by his wife and three adult children.

Article source: http://feeds.nytimes.com/click.phdo?i=b7c1d2c540b7c954eb09fcd50bba71e7

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