Bunkie, bypassed, bolted to Ford
Photo credit: GM CORP.
Sure, his father was president of General Motors. But that didn't mean Semon "Bunkie" Knudsen grew up as a spoiled brat.
When a 14-year-old Bunkie asked his father for a car, his father gave him a 1927 Chevrolet. But the car was in hundreds of pieces that Bunkie had to assemble.
After graduating with a degree in engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Knudsen didn't step into a cushy job at the company his father had led. Instead, the young engineer worked in a series of Detroit-area machine shops and later in GM plants, where he did everything from fetch tools to supervise auto assembly.
Knudsen was named general manger of GM's Detroit Diesel Engine Division in 1955, and a year later was assigned to head Pontiac. Pontiac was known for producing middle-of-the-road cars best suited for middle-class, middle-age buyers. GM leaders knew the situation needed to change and turned to the 43-year-old Knudsen to bring some excitement to Pontiac showrooms.
Knudsen recruited Pete Estes from Oldsmobile and John DeLorean from Packard. They brought about one of the greatest brand transformations in automotive history, turning Pontiac into a youth-oriented, high-performance powerhouse that launched Detroit's muscle car era. Pontiac would trail only Chevrolet and Ford in sales volume.
Knudsen's reward, late in 1961, was to become general manager at Chevrolet, where he launched the Chevelle and unleashed the Super Sport models and Chevrolet's big-block V-8 engine.
In 1965, Knudsen was chosen to oversee GM's Overseas and Canadian Group and was elected to GM's board. A year later his responsibilities expanded to include the Dayton, Household Appliance and Engine groups.
It seemed that Knudsen was destined for the GM presidency, which his father, Danish immigrant William S. Knudsen, held from 1937 until he resigned to lead American industrial production during World War II. But when the GM presidency became available in 1967, it wasn't Bunkie Knudsen but Ed Cole who got the job.
Knudsen was devastated, and soon accepted Henry Ford II's offer to become president of Ford Motor Co.
But Knudsen's on-the-factory-floor and in-the-design-studio management style didn't fit within the Ford framework. And his presence didn't fit with Lee Iacocca's push for the Ford presidency. Less than two years after moving to Ford, where he created the high-performance Boss 302 version of the Mustang, Knudsen was fired.
He launched a company to build motor homes, then became chairman of truckmaker White Motor Corp. of Cleveland. He retired in 1980, and for many years was the national commissioner of NASCAR, the stock car racing circuit on which Pontiac and Chevrolet had achieved success during his GM tenure.
You can reach Larry Edsall at firstname.lastname@example.org.