NATIONAL CORVETTE MUSEUM
Former Chevrolet General Manager Jim Perkins, the wily, free-speaking, cowboy boot-wearing Texan who helped launch Lexus and then returned to Chevrolet and saved the Chevrolet Corvette from being axed in the 1990s, died Friday in Charlotte, N.C. He was 83.
Perkins began his General Motors career in 1960 the hard way — when he couldn't get an interview at Chevrolet's regional office in Dallas, he hung out in the lobby and approached anyone who would speak with him. Finally, he begged his way in to Chevrolet by taking a warehouse job scrapping parts returned under warranty.
That start was all it took. Perkins, who fell in love with Chevrolet as a child and dreamed of owning a Chevrolet dealership, was on his way.
During Perkins' first tenure at Chevrolet — chronicled in a 2011 profile published in Automotive News' 100th anniversary commemoration of the Chevrolet brand — he earned one promotion after another over the next two decades until, finally, he landed the top job at Chevrolet, general manager.
In 1984, Toyota came calling. Perkins was wooed away to work on the launch of the Japanese company's Lexus luxury division.
Return to Chevy
Five years later, Perkins returned to Chevrolet as general manager to help shore up a division that was plagued with a lineup of vehicles that had fallen far behind the competition in quality, value, performance, fuel economy, safety — nearly everything customers deemed important.
One of those troubled vehicles was the flagship for the entire corporation, the Chevrolet Corvette, which was about to be given the axe. Sales had fallen to just over 20,000 units per year by 1989 and GM had deemed the Corvette to be "nonessential," recalls Ralph Kramer, Chevrolet's director of public relations at the time.
"It was Perkins who found the money to go ahead and get the prototypes built," Kramer told Automotive News. If it wasn't for that, that car was destined to be shelved, he said. "He had the opportunity to move some funds around and he did that surreptitiously, causing no end of anguish among the auditors."
Perkins diverted marketing dollars, Kramer said, to pay for the early versions of what would become the fifth generation of the Corvette. That car debuted in 1997, and from 1998 to 2008, global Corvette sales were never lower than 32,000 units per year. But saving the Corvette was only a small part of Perkins' second act at Chevrolet.
In the 1990s, Perkins stoked truck sales, pushed Chevy to five NASCAR championships and six Indy 500 wins and was famous for handing out Chevy bow tie lapel pins featuring the word "Proud."
New career: Retail
In 1996, at age 61, Perkins retired for good from GM and returned home to Fort Worth, Texas. But that didn't last. Ninety days later, Perkins was in North Carolina, running Hendrick Automotive Group's 100 stores, which at the time made it the nation's largest dealership group.
Perkins remained CEO at Hendrick until 2005, when he named COO for all of Hendrick's various retail and racing operations. In 2009, Perkins took on a new role at Hendrick, leading a venture that dealt with reconstructing classic cars and retired race cars. The venture also built high-performance Chevrolet Camaros.
Late Friday, tributes to Perkins began appearing on social media.
The National Corvette Museum on Facebook paid its respects to Perkins: "Jim was an instantly likable person, who could relate to anyone, no matter where they were on the social ladder, With a down-to-earth way of looking at things, he had an innate ability to cut through difficult problems to find solutions (even occasionally unorthodox ones), inspiring great respect and loyalty to those around him."
The tribute continued: "He was able to save the Corvette from cancellation by marshaling resources and talent in ways that he freely confessed (with a grin) 'could have gotten me fired or worse.' Under his leadership, however, Corvette would go from the chopping block to being the 1998 Motor Trend Car of the Year, paving the way for all Corvette's since."
Pontiac historian Jim Mattison wrote on Facebook: "Jim was one in a million, a true gentleman and one hell of a Chevrolet general manager.
SOURCE: Automotive News