A Word About Bob Stempel’s Passing

Bob Stempel died on May 7.

Bob Stempel died on May 7.

You may not recognize his name. Unless you happened to work at (or for) General Motors, especially between 1987 and 1992. He was president of GM ’87 to ’90, then CEO from ’90 to ’92.

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The line on Stempel is that he wasn’t much of an executive. But he was a hell of an engineer.

Stempel began at GM in 1958 as a design engineer for Oldsmobile in 1958. (Oldsmobile passed in 2004.) He worked on the teams that created both the front-wheel drive Toronado (’66) and the first catalytic converter. He had stints at Pontiac, Opel, Chevy, and Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac. During his time at the top of GM, the company had acute financial problems that presaged the shuttering of a whole bunch of plants. But the whole bunch weren’t closed, which led, in part, to Stempel’s departure.

R GM Photo

He then went to Energy Conversion Devices, a company dedicated to alternatives, such as solar and hydrogen. He was there for about 12 years, until 2007. This wasn’t a surprise inasmuch as the EV1 was developed under Stempel’s watch.

I remember visiting ECD several years ago. And Mr. Stempel met me in the lobby. He was wearing a three-piece suit. He was both professional and personable. He spent the entire morning showing me the work they were doing. He was exceedingly passionate about the work. It was engineering work.

“The General Motors family mourns the passing of Bob Stempel, who admirably led the company during very difficult times in the early 1990s. Bob was a very popular chairman with employees, and his many accomplishments as a visionary engineer included leading the development of the catalytic converter, one of the great environmental advancements in auto history.

"His knowledge of battery development led to the push for the EV1 electric car, and Bob continued to build his expertise in the electrification of the automobile after he left GM in 1992."

That’s the “official” statement from his employer. Funny thing: It isn’t attributed to anyone. Chances are, no one in an executive position there remembers Bob Stempel.

Times change.