By on December 29, 2018

Much has been written about Jim Perkins, the Texas boy with a keen love of Chevrolet whose relentless ambition finally placed him in GM’s sphere of influence. It’s thanks to Perkins that Chevrolet’s Corvette is still General Motors’ halo car, and not some long-departed nameplate culled during the height of badge engineering.

Perkins’ quintessentially American life came to an end this week. The two-time GM and one-time Toyota exec passed away in Charlotte, North Carolina, Friday at the age of 83, earning him tributes from fans of the car he saved.

As detailed by Automotive News, which broke news of his death, Perkins’ road to the top wasn’t greased with family connections or political influence. The man no one knew from Adam talked his way into the business and started out on the ground floor (maybe the sub-basement), sorting scrapped GM parts in a Dallas warehouse in 1960. From there, Perkins’ star rose.

The Texan achieved ever higher offices at the Chevrolet brand before moving to the Buick division in the early ’80s. Lured away by the Japanese in 1984, Perkins spent much of his four-year stint at Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. helping create the brand’s Lexus luxury division. He returned to GM in 1989, this time heading Chevrolet.

Image: National Corvette Museum

In a 2014 interview with Motor Trend, Perkins described the atmosphere leading up to his decision to depart his cherished GM:

“If you look at when things began to unravel, I think the single biggest thing was sharing parts and components among all the vehicle lines. I understand why it was done, but the brands started losing their identity. There was also this major move to robotics in the plants, which scared hell out of the unions because it went against their full-employment-for-life idea. And I think there was — I won’t say sabotage — less of an effort to make it work. The styling got old fast, too. There were so many things, you can’t point your finger at any one.”

The arrival of Don Hackworth as Buick’s general manager compelled him to accept an offer from Toyota, Perkins explained.

There, after becoming group VP of sales, marketing, and product planning, the company’s North American brass put him to work on Lexus — then, just an idea born of fear of falling behind Japanese rivals. Lexus got the green light, and Perkins found himself on a team of eight tasked with bringing the luxury arm to fruition. Once launched, Perkins became the division’s senior VP.

However, no sooner were 1989 LS 400s rolling into dealers then GM began bugging Perkins to return — an uncharacteristic move on the part of the American automaker. Having achieved executive rank, Perkins said he wouldn’t return for anything less than a big title. He quickly got his wish. GM President Bob Stempel offered up the post of general manager of Chevrolet.

Perkins told Motor Trend what he discovered upon his return:

“I didn’t recognize Chevrolet when I went back. It had lost its pride. There was so much infighting among sales, marketing, product planning, distribution, you name it. Everywhere you looked was a silo with its own management, and that’s the kiss of death. It took about a year to replace some top managers with people who would be a lot more responsive. TCE [Total Customer Enthusiasm] had to start at the top, so we had to move some people out who had been there a long time and had a bad attitude about things.”

At this time in its history, Chevrolet was focused on flinging Corsicas and Cavaliers to budget-conscious shoppers (and rental fleets) and gearing up to replace the lackluster Celebrity with the equally lackluster Lumina and its wallowy minivan counterpart. The Caprice soldiered on, relatively unchanged from its late-70s downsizing. At the top of the heap, the aging fourth-generation Corvette earned itself fewer and fewer buyers with each passing year.

Perkins created employee, dealer, and product councils, pumped money into NASCAR and truck development, touted Chevy’s American bona fides, and did whatever else he could to restore some lustre to the faded brand. He knew that Chevrolet needed a halo, and that the aging fourth-gen Corvette wasn’t it. Upon his return in 1989, talk of a fifth-gen model was dead in the water — GM execs saw the model as “nonessential,” said former Chevrolet PR head Ralph Kramer.

Speaking to Automotive News, Kramer said, “It was Perkins who found the money to go ahead and get the prototypes built. If it wasn’t for that, that car was destined to be shelved. He had the opportunity to move some funds around and he did that surreptitiously, causing no end of anguish among the auditors.”

Getting the fifth-gen Vette off the ground took years. Ultimately, Perkins persevered, with the updated model greeting enthusiastic buyers in 1997. The car’s saviour wasn’t around to see its launch, however, as Perkins retired from GM in 1996 — only to see himself jump, almost immediately, into the dealer fray as CEO of Hendrick Automotive Group, a position he held until 2005. Following a stint as Hendrick’s chief operating officer, Perkins set to work on building specialty products for the dealer group’s customers: hopped-up Camaros.

In his final year on earth, Perkins probably watched with amusement and satisfaction as product buzz built around the upcoming, mid-engined C8 Corvette. Chevy’s expected to launch the car as a 2020 model, and it owes Perkins a great deal of thanks for an even brighter halo.

[Images: General Motors, National Corvette Museum]

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21 Comments on “Jim Perkins, Who Saved the Corvette From a Moribund GM, Dies...”

  • avatar

    ““I didn’t recognize Chevrolet when I went back. It had lost its pride. There was so much infighting among sales, marketing, product planning, distribution, you name it. Everywhere you looked was a silo with its own management, and that’s the kiss of death. It took about a year to replace some top managers with people who would be a lot more responsive. TCE [Total Customer Enthusiasm] had to start at the top, so we had to move some people out who had been there a long time and had a bad attitude about things.””

    Isn’t this where Chevrolet, or rather General Motors finds itself today?

    Who recognizes Chevrolet today as anything than a merchant of less than stellar “me too” vehicles. The first thing I did when I bought my SS sedan was change badges to Holden badges. In America a 4 door sedan with a Chevrolet badge garners as much positive thoughts as dressing as Satan and walking down small town America with a scantily clad leather wearing woman on a leash.

    I have no interest to be associated with driving a Chevrolet product that doesn’t have have Suburban, Tahoe, (non 19+) Silverado, Camaro(to a degree), or Corvette nameplate. Elsewhere the lot contains cars I wouldn’t even give to my own children to drive.

    RIP to a legend, we need you today perhaps more than ever.

    • 0 avatar

      I find it amazing that GM is able to even get a single car out the door with all that goes on

    • 0 avatar
      Da Coyote

      My ’67 427 and the ’05 C6 were the only GM cars that were reliable and well put together. Sad. (And yes, I could shoot myself for ever selling that ’67. Back then, I actually believed the press when they were prattling on about no more petrol. Silly me.)

    • 0 avatar
      George B

      I’ve come to believe that a lot of what appears to be stupidity at General Motors is simply their effort to survive despite the anchor of the UAW and the costs associated with having many more employees in the past. If they had been able to get out from under the UAW in bankruptcy, they could compete in car segments where the profit margins are smaller.

      • 0 avatar

        With the PBGC projected to run out of funding by 2025 I doubt GM or any other large employer is going to be able to get out from under the UAW and unions in general.

      • 0 avatar

        Really? It’s obvious you despise unionized labor – how dare those workers organize for their rights – but an objective analysis of GM’s plight would show that incompetent, clueless management, then and now, has been more than adequate to drag them down.

        GM’s been producing mediocre crap for decades. The underwhelming product line-up has nothing to do with the U.A.W. They should have been left to go bankrupt and let the “miracle of capitalism” do it’s work by way of creative destruction – i.e., let them go under and allow their assets to be picked up for pennies on the dollar. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. Instead, they were made whole by the TAXPAYERS (talk about corporate welfare bums)and we’re still on the hook for that one. Here in Canada, after it’s all been said and done, us taxpayers are still out about $5 billion, and now GM has been unleashed to foist more lousy product on us, increasingly from China, under the enlightened leadership by the likes of Ackerman and Barra. Oh, and the thanks we got for bailing out their sorry butts was announcement of closure of their sole assembly facility in Oshawa, Ontario, along with four others in the States. I repeat, they deserved to fail thanks to management. Now they’re blowing billions on the insanity of autonomous vehicles and, for God’s sake, a belief that future GM buyers will want to rent/Uber their vehicles out. They’re scared crapless that Silicon Valley is going to eat their lunch.

        Unbelievable. And the U.A.W. has nothing to do with it.

  • avatar

    “It’s thanks to Perkins that Chevrolet’s Corvette is still General Motors’ halo car, and not some long-departed nameplate culled during the height of badge engineering.”

    OMG, I can see it now. “Hey, it worked for Cimarron. Just make a two door, give it a ten dollar instrument panel that talks, and throw 185 tires on it.”

  • avatar

    Perkins’ life and achievements conjure an image of some Englishman in 1918 reading an obit for a self-made Victorian industrial tycoon and comparing that time to his own broken one.

  • avatar

    A sad reminder about how long GM has been broken. RIP.

    • 0 avatar

      Too big to fail also means too big for course corrections, thus most time is wasted rearranging deck chairs. Glad Jim was able to keep the ‘Vette afloat. I had a blast in my ’14 Z51 today just running the 18 miles to my parents place to help my father with a quick project.

  • avatar

    // GM execs saw the model as “nonessential,”

    The Vette’s still around, how’s Chevy doing? Maybe those execs were right.

  • avatar

    Curious to see if GM’s latest round of job cuts and factory closures will have any impact on sales. That was probably the most negative press directed at the auto sector since the bailout or Dieselgate. Guess we’ll find out next week when they grace us with their now quarterly report.

    Didn’t know about Mr. Perkin’s time with Toyota and especially his role in the formation of Lexus. Maybe when he came back to GM they should have put him in charge of Cadillac.

  • avatar

    I certainly am grateful that he kept the Corvette alive. As I work for a very large organization I understand how the silo mentality can ruin a company.

    • 0 avatar
      87 Morgan

      Oh man you are not kidding. I too work for a legacy company that has way too many employees in a stale industry. I am participating in a relatively new project for which I was brought on for but have to interact with the ‘lifers’ who don’t see the comparisons I make to our ‘firm’ and GM. So many silos with ridiculous redundancies managed by countless people with VP of something on their business card.

  • avatar

    The Lexus launch is about the most un-GM thing to ever happen in the auto industry. To go from spending four years at a company that understood their new product needed to be the best in the world back to GM must have been excruciating. I hope he found all of his hard work rewarding in itself.

  • avatar
    George B

    I’m glad that Jim Perkins helped the C5 Corvette get built, but I think he’s fundamentally wrong about the relative value of marketing/halo car vs. product engineering. The real value of the C5 Corvette is that it pushed forward development of the excellent LS family of V8 engines. People not old enough to own a Corvette shoehorn the excellent LS engines into a wide variety of other vehicles. Strange that General Motors didn’t make more use of the LS anywhere it could be made to fit.

  • avatar
    Tele Vision

    When my wife was pregnant five years ago I was shopping old Miatas, mostly for a year-round commuter car ( winter tires and a few sandbags – job done ). She’d see me on the computer and make snide asides about ‘escape pods’. I thought, ‘If I’m going to get Hell for a Miata, I should look at Corvettes!’ I knew that they made four times the power of a Miata and were thus shite in the Winter but I didn’t care – I had my truck for that season. After a few months of searching for a decent, manual Corvette, I was leaning back towards the Mazda, as most ‘Vettes around here were automatics. It was during one of my last searches when I came across the CTS-V. It’s also shite in the snow but it passed the ‘Pregnant Wife’ test, as it has four doors and a trunk; and it passed the ‘Bored F-150 Driver’ test, as it came with a manual transmission – and the vaunted LS2.

    In no small way, Mr. Perkins saved my marriage, heh! I still have the V and my boy will learn to drive a stick with it. In ten years.

    Godspeed, Mr. Perkins. Emphasis on ‘speed’.

  • avatar

    Is the future of the Corvette secure with Mary Barra in charge. I now here rumors that the Camaro’s future is not secure. A few weeks ago the Camaro’s chief engineering Al Oppenheiser was reassigned to work on the company’s EV division.

    Barra is certainly no friend of the auto enthusiast.

  • avatar

    I’m really curious at this point how much the direction of the GM board and CEO resembles that of Studebaker from about 1956 forward.

    They brought in Curtiss-Wright to manage the enterprise after the Packard merger. On the one hand, the unusual agreement allowed CW to leverage unused capacity at Packard-Studebaker assets which gave them short-term cash to survive. But having management that was outside the auto business, the eventual “solution” to Studebaker’s problems was to take up stake in non-automotive industries and then exit the auto business once diversification reached critical mass.

    From a purely financial perspective, this represents a masterful work of protecting investor cash over the long term. From a core business and employee perspective, they cured the cancer by killing the patient.

    With the shedding of markets, products, and facilities, the vibe I’m getting from GM these days is that they’re focused on the finances at the expense of the business itself, just like Studebaker was. I know it’s not quite apples to apples as GM isn’t drowning in red ink at the moment, but it’s an angle to contemplate.

    I wonder, if GM still owned Frigidaire, would there be a serious contemplation of selling the divisions to Fiat and going forward making only refrigerators and air conditioners??

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