GM lifer Burger ran Chevy in '80s
When Bob Burger steered Chevrolet from the mid to late 1980s, he gained a reputation as a man of multiple dimensions:
An avid hunter and outdoorsman, known for his wit.
An advocate for dealers; he once said used cars would keep the franchised dealer system in place, no matter how big the computer revolution became. "You've got to remember that nobody ever offered you anything for that TV set that wore out," he said.
But the most common way people describe Burger is outspoken, no-nonsense and even blunt.
"He was a straight-shooter. No games. No hidden agendas," said friend Tony Hopp, former CEO of Campbell-Ewald, Chevrolet's longtime ad agency. "He was great to work with as a client because straight shooters are always the best."
Burger, who was born in 1924 in Ionia, Mich., was a career GM man.
He was an industrial engineer by training, but for half of his 40-plus years at GM he worked in sales at Oldsmobile.
He ran Chevrolet from 1984 until retiring in 1989 at age 64. Jim Perkins, who succeeded Burger as Chevy's general manager in 1989, recalls his predecessor not being particularly fond of the brand before leading it.
"He was kind of a dyed-in-the-wool Oldsmobile-Buick guy," Perkins said. "I think he changed his opinion of Chevrolet greatly when he had the chance to be the top guy there."
Between the Oldsmobile and Chevy jobs, Burger was a general sales manager at Buick, a corporate marketing vice president and, briefly, general manager of Cadillac.
Burger ran Chevrolet as the industry was recovering from a recession that pinched sales in the early 1980s. The mid-to-late 1980s were a frenzied time.
During that era Chevrolet billed itself as "The Heartbeat of America."
A quarter of the vehicles sold in the United States were Chevrolets, but the brand was in flux.
Chevy was selling the small Cavalier, but the Chevette, born during the energy crisis of the 1970s, was fading into rental-car fleets. And rear-wheel-drive staples such as the Caprice were on the way out.
Chevy's priority was to crank out smaller cars.
"Front-wheel drive has become state-of-the-art," Burger told Automotive News in 1986. "It's just a question of time before the ride and handling of front-wheel drive can be incorporated in a vehicle like the Corvette."
Burger's tenure was a time of joint ventures and "captive imports," when Chevrolet was bringing Japanese-made cars into the United States.
The mid-1980s brought the Spectrum, built by Isuzu, and the Sprint, made by Suzuki. Around the same time, Toyota Motor Corp. and GM started making the Nova at the former New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. plant in Fremont, Calif. The trio of small cars eventually would be marketed under the Geo name.
But Ford, with its red-hot Taurus, was right on Chevy's tail. In 1987, the Ford brand outsold Chevrolet. That had happened only once since 1959.
To counter the assault, Burger relied on his Geos and the new Lumina. In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, he declared: "Our mission is to go after Ford."
Chevy wouldn't outsell Ford again until 2005.
Burger also had unhappy dealers to contend with. For some of them, a big source of distraction and confusion was GM's experiment with the Saturn brand.
Chevy dealers thought they would be selling the new Saturn cars, only to see GM launch a separate company. Adding to their frustration was a perception that other GM brands were cannibalizing Chevrolet.
As the Chicago Tribune reported in 1989, Chevy retailers bristled when Oldsmobile got a minivan, the Silhouette, that was similar to Chevy's Lumina minivan.
Olds also got an SUV considered too much like the Chevy Blazer.
"To say our dealers are unhappy is an understatement," Burger said. "Their concern is if Olds gets something today, what about tomorrow?"
According to an acquaintance, in retirement Burger has divided his time between Michigan and Florida.
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