Runkle helped codify 'Chevyness' during a confusing corporate era
GM reorganization in '80s made brand images fuzzy, so chief engineer crafted some guidelines
Photo credit: JOE WILSSENS
In the mid-1980s, Don Runkle and Sean Fitzpatrick lived near each other on picturesque Pine Lake in West Bloomfield, a leafy community north of Detroit. Runkle was Chevrolet's chief engineer and Fitzpatrick was creative kingpin at Chevy's longtime advertising agency, Campbell-Ewald.
"We became very good friends," Runkle recalls. "He used to come over in his pontoon boat, pick me up on my dock, and we'd go out and talk about Chevy over a beer or two."
One bright Sunday in 1986, Fitzpatrick motored up to Runkle's pier and the two men set off together.
"He had a tape recorder with him and said, 'I'd like to play you a couple of things we've been kicking around,'" Runkle says.
Fitzpatrick, a renowned ad man hired away from the J. Walter Thompson agency to help revive Chevy's brand luster, was weighing several ideas.
Once on the water, Fitzpatrick hit the play button. Runkle listened to a few tunes, and when he heard an upbeat melody called "The Heartbeat of America" he looked at Fitzpatrick and said, "That's the one."
By the fall of 1986, "The Heartbeat of America" spots were running on TV. The response was overwhelmingly positive. The 30-second "theme" commercial, a mixture of film cuts showing every Chevrolet model, scored the highest rating for "memorability" that ASI Market Research had ever recorded.
"I probably had no influence on Sean's decision," says Runkle today.
Still, it is clear that Runkle, as chief engineer, had emerged somewhat surprisingly as protector of the Chevrolet brand during a period of transformation at General Motors.
A new kind of chief engineer
Runkle joined Chevy in 1968 out of the University of Michigan and rose swiftly through the product development ranks until 1982, when he was named assistant chief engineer at Buick. Two years later he was back at Chevy as chief engineer -- concurrent with the reformulation of GM's brands into the Chevrolet-Pontiac-Canada and Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac groups.
But the reorganization meant the honored old job of "chief engineer" had turned into a different kind of gig. Chevy was folded into the C-P-C engineering group, a monolith that was developing cars and components for the entire group. Runkle effectively had two jobs -- serving on the staffs of both Chevrolet General Manager Bob Burger and C-P-C engineering head Bob Schultz.
It was up to Runkle to explain Chevrolet's attributes to the engineers and researchers who were developing products and components for other GM units.
"We had to talk to chassis engineers about what makes a Chevy different from a Pontiac," he said. "So I felt I needed to understand the brand."
Runkle gathered ideas from old Chevy hands. It wasn't as though he was a novice. He had spent nearly his entire career at Chevy. But he had to codify what he knew and then convey the message to others.
"I had to talk to the vast C-P-C engineering organization, and I needed to be able to articulate what Chevy was, since those guys were also designing Pontiacs," he said. "I had to be able to say what makes a Chevy a Chevy, so I felt it was important to do some studying.
"I started reading a bunch of books about Chevy and its history and I began to write things down," he says. "I still have those books in my basement."
'A Chevy price'
Such brand analysis was something new for the position Runkle was in.
"I wouldn't have expected previous Chevy chief engineers to have done that because they would have lived and died Chevrolet," he said. "The chief engineer was part of creating what the brand was. But with the reorganization, that was disturbed big-time. We had people from Pontiac and Fisher Body all in one big group. The people who were doing Chevy were not just reporting up through Chevy."
Runkle says he came up with six Chevy attributes. Today he doesn't remember all of them, but one stood out. Runkle determined that throughout its history Chevrolet had always given its customers a little something extra -- "a little bit of Cadillac."
The goal had always been to offer a feature or technical advance that went beyond what rivals Ford or Plymouth would be expected to offer -- something that might be found on a Cadillac, "but at a Chevy price."
"They always wanted to offer upmarket features on a budget," he said.
Runkle pointed that out in a speech to a group of GM engineers and researchers in 1984. Afterward, a researcher named Paul Agarwal walked up to him and said: "Runkle, what the hell are you talking about?"
Runkle cited examples. He said the Powerglide automatic transmission that Chevy introduced in 1950 was the first automatic offered on a low-priced car. It may not have been a great automatic compared to what Cadillac was offering at the time, but Runkle says it sure beat Ford's three-speed manual.
And there was the small-block Chevy engine that debuted in the late 1950s. Chevy needed overhead valves, but couldn't afford forged rocker arms. So it developed stamped rocker arms at a lower cost -- one of several innovations that made the engine powerful, light and low-cost.
Runkle mentioned to Agarwal that upmarket brands such as Cadillac and Mercedes were offering antilock brakes at the time. He said Chevy also wanted an antilock system, but it had to be at "Chevy prices," not Mercedes or Cadillac prices.
"Give us ABS for 100 bucks," Runkle told him.
Agarwal went away and developed what became known as ABS VI. It cost $106 per unit, and by the late 1980s it was being used throughout the Chevy lineup.
"It all came from that little remark," Runkle said. "I gave him the idea. We used a dumb little brand speech to make that happen."
'Styling that had smack'
The brand study also led Runkle to conclude that "dashing" styling was an attribute of the brand. He cites the 1955, 1957 and 1959 Chevys as examples.
"It was styling that had smack," he said.
That was why, in the 1980s, Chevy became one of the first brands to adopt four headlights.
Racing was another characteristic Runkle identified. During his tenure as chief engineer, Chevy developed an Indy Car engine that would eventually win plenty of races.
Until moving on to the top engineering job at C-P-C in 1986, Runkle worked closely with Burger, who had moved over from the top job at Cadillac in 1984.
"I remember Bob said to me, 'You've got a tough job' because he was a guy who hadn't lived and breathed Chevrolet his whole career," Runkle said.
But Burger helped out his chief engineer by giving instructions to his new Chevy team: Pay attention to Don Runkle when it came to matters of the brand.