The automaker -- battered by a recession, the first Gulf War and steady market share losses -- lost more than $17 billion in North America from 1990 to 1993.
Costs were out of control. Factories were running well below capacity. The automaker was increasingly slow to bring new models to market.
According to an internal study, GM spent $800 more per car on labor than rival Ford Motor Co., while producing lower-quality vehicles.
In a potential blow to the world's biggest automaker, Wall Street was threatening to strip GM of its top-grade investment rating, a move that would make it much more expensive for the automaker to borrow funds for daily operations. And GM shares were trading at a 4 1/2-year low — below $30.
Under Smale and Smith, GM slowly regained financial footing and posted record profits of $4.9 billion on sales of $154.9 billion in 1994.
Smale joined the GM board of directors in 1982 when he was president and CEO of consumer goods giant Procter & Gamble. He became chairman of the board of P&G in 1986 and retired in 1990.
The Associated Press, citing a P&G spokesperson, said no cause of death was available.
Smale continued to serve on the boards of several companies, including GM, after his retirement from P&G.
As chairman, Smale reformed GM's staid management and put a renewed focus on shareholder value and customers, with a special emphasis on car design, marketing and sales.
He hired an outsider -- Ron Zarrella -- as marketing czar and advocated stronger brand management.
Vehicle line executives were put in charge of GM's car and truck lineup, with responsibility for profits and sales.
In 1995, GM directors agreed to Smale's request to assume a lesser role and he retired as chairman at the end of that year. He was succeeded by Smith on Jan. 1, 1996.
Smale continued to serve on the GM board until 2002.