Bunkie Knudsen Diary - The Corvette Diaries

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

Ronald Ahrens Oct 1, 2007 0 Comment(s)
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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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