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Bunkie Knudsen Diary - The Corvette Diaries

In The '60s, Chevrolet's Top Executive Wrote It All Down

Ronald Ahrens Oct 1, 2007
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Look, Dad: Bunkie (standing) shows his midget to his father, Big Bill.

At a sober, respectable, and well-admired outfit like General Motors, there was never open dissent, incompetence, or scandal. Order prevailed above all, and methodical processes made the program inch ahead. Management by committee kept individuals in the background. When a few men stood out, it was because of organizational genius or technical brilliance, not personal flair.

Yet during a crucial period in GM's history, something unprecedented happened-Bunkie Knudsen kept a diary. His observations, it might be said, suggest otherwise about GM. As general manager of the Chevrolet Division from December 1961 to April 1965, Knudsen was privy to extraordinarily revealing information and scenes. He wrote about them in engineer's gridded notebooks, usually keeping it brief. Eventually, he started dictating his musings to be typed up by a secretary, and the entries grew longer and more detailed. Although a few colleagues knew about the diary, it was never publicly revealed. A few years after Knudsen's '98 death, his heirs bequeathed these papers to the National Automotive History Collection, which is housed at the Detroit Public Library. Early in 2006, the diary was made available for the general public to read.

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Bunkie and Harley Earl

From Knudsen's writings, a compelling story emerges. While encountering many high points, such as the sensational launch and acceptance of the Sting Ray, one also sees the nascent problems that came to hobble GM. Knudsen often complains about the meddlesome top brass, those financial people who had taken control and insisted upon determining such small matters as trim and color in vehicle lines, even though their real job was to craft corporate policy and plan future business. He frequently fretted about management's arrogance and complacency about competitors, and wondered if GM's market share was taken for granted. The proposal to integrate the automotive divisions' manufacturing operations struck Knudsen as a bad idea-he thought competition was healthy and developed management talent quite effectively. "The idea of attempting to bookkeep an organization into prosperity won't work," he wrote. In the end, of course, GM pursued this policy of badge engineering nearly to the point of self-destruction.

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Beyond the broader corporate questions, Knudsen was preoccupied with the clashes between himself and Ed Cole, his predecessor at Chevy's helm, who had stepped up to supervise all of GM's automotive divisions. Cole's record as a brilliant engineer was indisputable. Knudsen recognized it, but was infuriated by his corporate political maneuverings. The two men became Shakespearean rivals, but Cole was always better positioned for the throne. Knudsen may also have been a fine engineer, not to mention a natural manager, but unlike Cole, he hadn't helped to develop the high-compression Cadillac V-8 or the small-block Chevy V-8. As the "father of the Corvair," Cole became the rare GM poster boy after appearing on the cover of Time in 1959 at the beginning of the small-car boom. He ascended to GM's presidency in 1967. His last notable project was development of the innovative Vega, but, ultimately, he became mired in details related to exhaust emissions, safety standards, and fuel economy-hardly the dream of a hard-core car guy.

Meanwhile, Knudsen stewed in the pot of his own resentment, then shockingly resigned from GM in 1968 and took the presidency at Ford Motor Company, where he encountered a new and particularly fierce adversary, namely, the seriously miffed Lee Iacocca, a.k.a., the "father of the Mustang."

Knudsen's diaries also treat such dear subjects as the origins of the Mark IV engine, the question of the four-door Corvette, advanced research, racing-related pursuits, manufacturing and quality questions, and more. Sometimes his treatment is rather oblique, leaving the desire for more detail, but the main lesson is this highly capable man was always concerned with achieving the best outcome.

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Incredible Collection: The National Automotive History Collection has been instrumental in the compilation of this series. (L-R) Laura Kotsis, archivist, NAHC, and Barbara Thompson, NAHC assistant manager show just a few of the items in the collection including a hardbound volume from the '63 GM Management Conference, two of Bunkie's diaries in engineer's notebooks, a hubcap-plaque presented to Big Bill on his 60th birthday, and a Detroit News Sunday Pictorial cover, January 13, 1963, that portrays Bunkie before a portrait of Big Bill. The model Firebird concept car also belongs to the Collection.

Semon Emil Knudsen was born in 1912, in Buffalo, New York. His father, William, had come from Denmark in 1900 and worked his way up in a firm that supplied axle housings and crankcases to Ford Motor Company. When Ford acquired the firm in 1914, the family came to Detroit, and William became responsible for setting up Ford's branch factories. After four years, he was appointed production manager, earning $50,000 annually, and commissioned the great architect Albert Kahn to design the family's stately country place on an island in the Detroit River. Yet in 1921, he abruptly left Ford. Some say he never believed the massive Rouge complex was anything but a grandiosity. Evidence found in his own papers-which are part of the same archive as Bunkie's diaries-suggests Henry Ford's anti-Semitism created a profound disturbance.

Semon Emil acquired the nickname of Bunkie when his sister was born, and for a time, the young lad bunked in William's room. It could almost be said that from the beginning he was groomed to run General Motors. William, known informally as Big Bill, ran a steel company for a year after leaving Ford, but in 1922, he joined GM as vice president of operations at Chevrolet. He vowed Chevy would match Ford in sales; by 1927, when Ford lost production during the Model A changeover, Chevy surpassed them. Offering "A Six for the Price of a Four" two years later, gave Chevy a lead it rarely would surrender.

Big Bill took over as GM president in 1937, after Alfred P. Sloan moved exclusively into the chairmanship. At the outbreak of World War II, Franklin D. Roosevelt summoned Big Bill to Washington, D.C., where he ran the war production effort, tapping manufacturers to build tanks and planes. He is said to have been the first foreign-born man to receive an officer's commission in the U.S. Army, and he retired as General Knudsen.

When Big Bill returned home, he was honored at lavish banquets and presided over the Golden Jubilee celebration in 1946. This channeled the jubilant postwar spirit into the celebration of the auto industry's fiftieth anniversary, a spectacle that still lingers in the memories of many Detroiters.

Meanwhile, Bunkie grew up tinkering with midget racing cars and fast boats. He went off to MIT and received a degree in engineering. True to his father's belief that every young man should learn the mechanic's trade, a dictum Big Bill repeated in speeches and newspaper interviews throughout the '30s, Bunkie worked on the Pontiac assembly line during summer vacations. His first jobs were as a draftsman in a machine shop, then as an inspector in a roller bearing company. In 1939, he went to work for Pontiac, and during a ten-year stint rose to chief inspector and master mechanic. Next, he became director of GM's Process Development Section, where quality control measures were perfected. In 1953, he transferred to the aircraft engine operations at the Allison Division-and started the diary that would be kept for the next forty-four years.

By 1956, Knudsen was ready for the big time. He was named Pontiac's general manager, becoming the youngest-ever leader of a GM automotive division. His engineering team included Pete Estes, who would one day succeed Knudsen as Chevy boss, and John DeLorean, who would succeed Estes. This team led Pontiac from number six to number three in sales, trailing only Chevy and Ford. The practices they perfected at Pontiac would translate nicely to Chevrolet: installing big engines, beefing up suspensions, and emphasizing performance. (Knudsen even used the same formula during his desultory, nineteen-month stint at Ford, where much to Iacocca's annoyance he pushed for the "Boss" Mustangs.)

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Sliding To Success: Bobby Unser sent this photo to Bunkie when he slid to a record-setting victory in the '59 Pikes Peak Climb, thanks to 420-A Pontiac engine and Tri-Power. The picture is inscribed.

Knudsen's primary personal characteristics were modesty and dignity. "He was a classy guy," said David Cole, the son of Ed Cole and chairman of the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Michigan. He loved golf, bowling, shooting, fishing, and boating. He never attended a party he disliked. He hated wasting time in dragged-out meetings. Whether he gave a speech to a United Way banquet or a regional dealer council, he practiced hard and often judged his performance critically. His sharp eye for phonies and time-servers is reflected in a line about a man who is referred to only as Wellock. "[I] believe he is just coasting, waiting for retirement," Knudsen wrote.

The first diary entry that mentions the Corvette appears January 4, 1962, after Knudsen had been at Chevy a few weeks. Typically matter-of-fact, he wrote, "Mr. Davis of Gulf Oil came in." He was referring to Grady Davis, who prepared Corvettes for endurance and SCCA events. "He would like to compete to a greater degree with the Ferraris. In order to do this, he needs more power and better brakes. I told him we would work on these items and sent him over to see Duntov."

More power is something Knudsen knew how to do, having increased engine displacement and letting carburetors proliferate in various Pontiacs, as well as giving out the 421ci mill to the likes of Bobby Unser for Pikes Peak, to Smokey Yunick for NASCAR Grand National racing, and to Mickey Thompson for drags and (four engines at a time) for land-speed record attempts.

In an exclusive series for Corvette Fever, the next several issues will present detailed, previously unrevealed episodes based on Knudsen's diary. We will see Knudsen struggle to kill Cole's proposed four-door Corvette and his quest to make the big-block engine a reality. We will meet characters ranging from Dan Gurney and other famous drivers, to Strategic Air Command top dog Curtis LeMay and other Air Force officers. Everybody adored the Sting Ray and wanted a drive-even a Hollywood bimbo whom Cole was keeping in a Detroit hotel. Finally, we'll see the fur fly between Knudsen and Cole over the four-wheel-drive, Corvette-based CERV II, which Cole's buddy wanted to adapt for the '65 Indianapolis 500.

So, please accept this invitation to join the fun-courtesy of the GM executive who never explained why, but was compelled to write it all down.


Semon Knudsen Collection
Detroit, MI



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