Perkins and Chevrolet, bound by mutual admiration

Perkins and Chevrolet, bound by mutual admiration

“By the time I was 15 or 16 years old I was probably as good a Chevrolet mechanic as there was in the state of Texas,” he reminisced with Automotive News in 2011. But he didn’t get much farther than the lobby door.

FB01″I had a hell of a time even getting an interview,” he recalled. He begged his way into the lowest-starting job at Chevrolet: a warranty parts return clerk in a warehouse in 1960.

But that was all Perkins needed. From there came a long string of promotions into management. He handled regional jobs and dealer relations, served in a number of corporate roles and became general manager of Buick.

In 1984, Toyota wooed Perkins to jump ship, and he became senior vice president of the Japanese automaker’s foray into luxury vehicles. Perkins played a key role in the creation and launch of the Lexus brand.

But by the late 1980s, Chevrolet was in turmoil. Then-GM President Lloyd Reuss persuaded him to do something former GM executives rarely did — return to Chevrolet. He replaced General Manager Bob Burger, who was about to retire.

Taking over in 1989, Perkins found Chevrolet in a mess. The decade had left it peddling such dull cars as the Lumina, Corsica and Beretta, as well as the about-to-be-launched Lumina APV minivan, derisively referred to as “the Dustbuster” for its resemblance to the hand-held vacuum cleaner. The restyled Caprice was so bloated in its styling that some said it reminded them of a parade float.

“I was stunned,” he said in 2011. “I thought, ‘Perkins, what in the hell have you done?’ I should’ve done more due diligence than I did before coming back from Toyota.”

But then he went to work. First order of business: Save the Corvette.

GM, which was losing about $2,000 per car sold, had deemed the Corvette “non-essential” and planned to kill it. Perkins would have none of that.

Ralph Kramer, Chevrolet’s public relations director in the early 1990s, told Automotive News that Perkins devised a way to use funds earmarked for marketing to get prototypes, built of what would become the Corvette’s fifth generation. “He had the opportunity to move some funds around and he did that surreptitiously, causing no end of anguish among the auditors,” Kramer said. The fifth-generation Corvette debuted in 1997, and sales and profits recovered.

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