Profile: Ed Cole credited with reviving Chevy

1969 Chevrolet Corvette

1969 Chevrolet Corvette (Credit: David Fluhrer)

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You know you aren't an average person when your personal motto is: "Kick the hell out of status quo."

Many men have had a hand in running the largest automotive company in the world, but few were as un-status quo as Ed Cole.

Articulate, daring, decisive and charismatic, Cole could have been known for his devotion to safety while president of General Motors, including his push for air bags back when seat belts weren't mandatory. Or he could have been known for his devotion to speed as chief engineer at Chevrolet, including the fact he pushed the original Corvette into production.

Cole could have been known for many things. Instead, he was known for who he was.

"He got people to do big things," read the official announcement when Cole was inducted into the Corvette Hall of Fame in 1998. "He thought big. He talked big. He got people to do big things."

Personally, Cole was a maverick and a maven, a hard-nosed guy with a soft heart.

Professionally, his automotive instincts were right on the money.
Cole got into the business after attending the General Motors Institute, a school for aspiring GM engineers. Cole quickly caught the eye of senior management and they persuaded him to leave before graduating.

Cole spent 47 years with the automaker and just 10 years at the Chevrolet division. During that decade, Cole did the most.

After rising through the ranks, he became Chevy's chief engineer in May, 1952 at 43 and just in time to oversee the design of a new overhead valve V8 for the division: the birth of the "small-block" Chevrolet engine. With it, he created an icon in the showroom.
As a young man who loved the thrill of high-performance driving, Cole was stunned when he came across a clay model of the Corvette in a GM design studio one day.

He knew GM had a winner and he believed if Chevrolet could produce a two-seat sports car with the flair of the clay model, and take it from the drawing board to the driveway in less than a year, the once-stodgy brand could move into the hearts of Americans.

It wasn't easy, but it worked. Under Cole's leadership, GM tripled the engineering staff at Chevrolet, allowed more freedom in design and engine work and Chevrolet got more involved in auto racing.

Cole believed that if Chevy was successful on the track on Sundays, it had to win in the showrooms on Mondays.

First he entered the division into the trials at Daytona, Beach, Fla., in 1956, then the 12-hour Sebring (Fla.) endurance race. Cole also urged GM design chief Bill Mitchell to graft curvaceous lines on the Corvette after three years of sluggish sales. Chevy called it the Sting Ray.

It was the first step toward turning the Corvette into what it was originally designed to be: a true sports car. Cole brought engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov on board and replaced the original six-cylinder engine with his new V8, which became standard equipment in 1956.

Cole would also put Chevrolet on the stock-car track, designing new engines, before helping to develop the Corvair, a lightweight, rear-engine vehicle that would help cement his status.

"What the public really wants is a more luxurious, less expensive car, greater economy without sacrificing ability to get away from a stoplight, with enough room to transport a family across the country - plus an interior of austere mink," Cole once said.

The Corvair scared the competition and inspired a guy named Lee Iacocca to create a Ford car called a Mustang.

Cole left Chevrolet to become GM's group vice president in 1961, and was quickly promoted up the ranks. Four years later he was an executive vice president and two years after that was at the top of GM.

From there, Cole continued to do ambitious projects, this time in the area of safety and fuel economy. He was an advocate of stouter bumpers, catalytic converters (to reduce emissions) and air bags as GM took the lead in research and development.

And just when it seemed he had solved the world's problems and tackled the big issues, Cole stepped away from GM to become Chairman of Checker Motors where he planned to launch an air-cargo business. Tragically, three years later in 1977, he died in a light-plane crash.

In the text of his hall-of-fame nomination, the Corvette folks summed up Cole's devotion with an accurate description of a man who was hard to define:

"He had a quick wit and a quirky grin and uncanny automotive instincts," it read. "He thought cars and trucks should get up and go. Quickly. He made 'dash' and 'daring' Chevy by-words. He was a dynamo."

Steven Reive is a feature writer with Wheelbase Media. He can be reached on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/media by using the contact link. Wheelbase supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.

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