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Automotive Pioneers: Robert Stempel

Thomas A. DeMauro Jul 01 2020


From the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to the top of General Motors
From an auto mechanic in Bloomfield, New Jersey, to chairman and CEO of General Motors and owning a home in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, engineer Robert C. (Bob) Stempel steadily rose through the ranks at the storied automaker during his 34-year tenure.
Born during the Depression on July 15, 1933, in Trenton, Stempel had two brothers and a sister. The imposing, 6-foot, 4-inch teenager, a class-of-1951 Bloomfield High School graduate, found his interest in cars flourished as he worked summers as a mechanic at Ed Uniss' shop. "Those were the days when you invested in a good set of sockets and wrenches and feeler gauges, and you could make anything run," Stempel stated in Automotive News in 1996.
He studied mechanical engineering at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, receiving his bachelor's degree in 1955, and married Patricia Bachmann soon after. They later had three children.
After a stint with General Electric, Stempel served two years as a Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In 1958, he was hired as a senior detailer in the chassis design department at Oldsmobile. He was promoted to a senior designer in 1962 and transmission design engineer two years later.
Stempel was instrumental in developing the front suspension and engine and transmission mounting system for the 1966 Toronado's longitudinal-engine/ front-wheel-drive layout. The new model won the Motor Trend Car of the Year award. To close the decade, he became a motor engineer.
He earned his MBA from Michigan State University in 1970 and ascended to assistant chief engineer at Oldsmobile two years later. GM President Ed Cole chose Stempel to be a special assistant to organize the advancement of emissions controls in 1973, and he led the development of the catalytic converter for production. He was promoted to chief engineer— engines and components for Chevrolet in 1974 and then to the Division's director of engineering the next year.
His family had owned Pontiacs and Chevrolets, likely making his promotion to general manager of Pontiac (and a GM vice president) in 1978 even more momentous.
The managing director job at Adam Opel AG in Germany came in 1980. Then the general manager's chair at Chevrolet just two years after, from which he approved the front-wheel-drive Celebrity Eurosport, among other decisions.
During a GM restructuring, in 1984, Stempel advanced to vice president and group executive in charge of Buick- Oldsmobile-Cadillac. Two years later, he became GM executive vice president and was in charge of the truck and bus and overseas groups, and he was elected to the GM board of directors. He was named president and chief operating officer in 1987.
On August 1, 1990, 57-year-old Stempel, a car guy and engineer, became the chairman and CEO of an ailing General Motors. Shortly after he took over, the Persian Gulf War began, and the recession it helped create exacerbated the corporation's myriad existing financial and other problems that he'd inherited from his predecessor, Chairman Roger Smith.
A plan for cutting about 74,000 jobs and closing 21 plants was announced, but during its implementation, Stempel remained concerned about the impact it would have on the people and communities involved. The board of directors felt that he and his team weren't moving quickly enough. Among other issues, the provision he agreed to with the United Auto Workers that paid laid-off hourly workers up to 95 percent of their wages was also cited as hindering GM's restructuring efforts. Nevertheless, there were several reasons why the corporation lost billions in North America in 1991 and 1992.
The board of directors and the chairman reached an impasse by late 1992, and in what has been widely described as a boardroom coup, GM and Stempel parted ways. Some may argue that his term was mostly ill-fated from the outset by the circumstances of the day.
While at GM, Stempel had been a proponent of the Impact (later EV1) electric car, and following his retirement, he still pursued renewable energy technology, accepting an advisory position with Energy Conversion Devices, established by inventor Stanford Ovshinsky. From 1995 to 2007, Stempel served as chairman. Among the company's various pursuits, it also provided NiMH-technology battery packs to GM for the later EV1s.
When Bob Stempel passed away on May 7, 2011, the 77-year-old executive was still serving on the boards of a few companies. Throughout his career, he was active in various organizations and charities, as well.
Lloyd Reuss, former GM president under Stempel, was quoted in multiple sources as saying, "In the 1970s, Mr. Stempel recognized the need to cut pollution and make cars more efficient, helping lead a shift to smaller, more efficient vehicles."
He was also known for his loyalty and for earning it from others, as well as his motivational skills, measured decision making, engineering talent, commitment to quality, team-oriented approach, hands-on style, and affable personality. Bob Stempel, a life-long car guy, left a positive impression on the vast majority of those he came in contact with.
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