Former General Motors Co. CEO Robert Stempel, an engineer who led the development of the catalytic converter but was ousted in a boardroom coup, died Saturday in Florida. He was 77.
During his three decades at the company Stempel helped to develop many of the fuel-efficient and pollution-control technologies still in use today including front-wheel-drive cars, the catalytic converter, and even battery powered cars. Stempel was chairman and CEO from 1990 to1992.
"He is the best engineer I've ever worked with in the world," said Stan Ovshinsky, who ran Energy Conversion Devices, a car battery development company where Stempel worked after leaving GM.
But Stempel's accomplishments as an engineer were overshadowed by his short tenure at the top of the company.
He and his management team were forced out after GM'S North American operations lost billions of dollars. While he wasn't blamed for all the losses, Stempel and his team were seen as moving too slowly to fix the company's problems.
The New Jersey native earned a bachelor's degree in science at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts and a master's in business administration from Michigan State University, according to GM's Heritage Center website.
Stempel started out at Oldsmobile in 1958 as a detailer in chassis design and was part of the team in 1966 that helped develop the Toronado. He designed the car's front suspension and developed the mounting system for the engine and transmission. It was the first American front-wheel-drive car in nearly three decades.
Most cars today are front-wheel-drive. They are lighter and more efficient than rear-wheel-drives.
In the 1970s, Stempel recognized the need to cut pollution and make cars more efficient, helping lead a companywide shift to smaller, more efficient vehicles, said Lloyd Reuss, a former GM president.
Stempel led the development of the catalytic converter, which uses precious metals like platinum to convert the harmful gases from combustion into less harmful ones.
He later was named vice president and group executive in charge of the Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac group and executive vice president of GM.
Stempel and Reuss "were the favorite two to ascend to the top of the corporation on the strength of their technical knowledge," said Gerald Meyers, a professor at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan and former president, chief executive and chair of the American Motors Corp.
"They were stalwarts in the company in design and engineering, and even production of some of the vehicles," Meyers said. "Bob was a product of the old system _ being lots of layers of management and lots of committees and lots of mistakes. Still, he rose to the top."
He also pushed the development of GM's EV1 electric car in the 1990s.
Unlike the "financial gurus" who had run the automaker for decades, Stempel brought a change, Meyers added.
"It was a very difficult time," he said. "The federal requirements and constraints on design were taking hold. Then came the recession of the early '90s. That was doomsday for Bob and for Lloyd. The losses began to mount because of all the excesses of the corporation that had been built in."
Meyers, who also was a friend and neighbor of Stempel's in Michigan's Bloomfield Township, said Stempel was devastated when removed from the top at GM.
Following his career there, Stempel became Energy Conversion Devices board chair. He retired from Energy Conversion Devices in 2007.
Stempel was a visionary who saw the need for the U.S. to be independent of foreign oil, Ovshinsky said.
"He knew like I did there could easily be electric cars if you had the batteries, the battery was the missing link, and that is why he came to me," Ovshinsky said.
In 1975, Stempel's son Tim was kidnapped at random while skateboarding in suburban Detroit. Stempel paid a $150,000 ransom for the teenager's release. The two kidnappers were captured and pleaded guilty during trial.
AP Writers Ed White, Corey Williams and Mike Householder in Detroit contributed to this story.