Over the last few decades, American car companies have been struggling to retain their share of the auto manufacturing market, and auto industry issues have made a regular appearance in the newspaper and on the nightly news. However, these news outlets typically provide an outside analyst's perspective. For an inside look at the auto industry, LoveToKnow Cars sat down with George Wilson, a retired engineer and supervisor at General Motors for nearly 35 years.
An Inside Perspective on the Auto Industry
In his more than three decades working in the auto industry, George Wilson saw ups, downs, and more than a few erratic turns. When he started with GM in 1951, the auto industry was enjoying the post-war boom. He weathered the mandated safety requirements of the 1960s and the fuel shortages of the 1970s. By the time he retired in 1986, GM was already facing stiff competition from oversees and had begun aggressive cost-reduction measures to remain viable.
LoveToKnow Cars is excited to provide this exclusive interview with George Wilson.
Second Generation at General Motors
LTK: Your family has a long history of working at GM. What roles did your parents play in the early days of the auto industry?
GW: My dad and mother both worked for GM when they were young. My dad worked for Buick, and my mom for Fisher Body.
My mom was from the Ozarks in Missouri and came to Flint, Michigan with her sisters to work in the auto factories. Fisher had a lot of women working for them, as they did the sewing for all the fabric that covered the seats of the cars. After my parents got married, my mom became a housewife and raised five kids.
My dad worked as a stock chaser. That was the person who kept track of the location of all the parts used on the assembly line. When the line workers started to run out of parts, it was the stock chaser's job to find them and get them to the line. If they didn't have any, it was his job to call the supplier and have them ship some to the plant in time to keep the line running. Although he started with only a grade school education, my dad took night classes and correspondence courses to improve his education.
LTK: How did you get started with GM?
GW: When I got out of the army, I went to Michigan Technological University and graduated with double degrees in mechanical engineering and electrical engineering. At that time, the auto companies were going great, so I applied to several. I chose Buick because they offered me the most money and had a very good program. I started out in a two-year training program in which I worked in each area of the engineering department and each factory where that department worked.
Career in the Auto Industry
LTK: Can you describe a little bit about the course your career took over the years?
GW: After the training program, I started as a design engineer. I was in charge of the manual transmission and all of the external shifting controls for both the manual and automatic transmissions. Our group not only designed the motors, transmissions, axles, and other components, but we actually made the parts and assembled them into cars called prototypes. We continued making changes to improve them until they went into production, which usually took at least two years. In some cases, on a brand new car, it could take up to five years.
Eight years later, I was transferred to the Experimental Department and was in charge of testing transmissions and controls. Most testing was at the GM Proving Grounds, but there were some test trips on the highways also.
My next assignment was as the supervisor of a special group to write procedures on how we designed, built, tested, and approved all of the new designs that go into making a car. After completing that document, I was assigned to supervise the Specification Department, and in 1978, I was put in charge of the Specification Department at Chevy. I stayed there until I retired.
LTK: What do you think you liked most about working at GM?
GW: I enjoyed all of the jobs I had, but working on communicating with the other divisions was the most rewarding.
LTK: How much of a role did women play at GM during the time you were there?
GW: I had several female engineers and two secretaries working for me in the Experimental Department, and about a third of the Specification Department was women. At the time I retired, I had about 500 employees under me, and about half of those were women. One of the two administrators who worked directly under me was a woman too.
In working with women, I would have to say they are all individuals, but I had the fortune to work with some of the best. They were all very competent, but some were outstanding. I had several excellent secretaries, and my second in command at Chevy was super. Her background was in computers, and she was an excellent administrator.
Auto Industry Issues and Challenges
LTK: What kind of changes did you see during your time in the industry?
GW: My experience regarding car industry changes has mostly to do with GM. In the early years of my experience in the industry, GM was mostly people-oriented and labor-intensified. Buick, in its heyday, had over 35,000 employees, and when I left, it was down to 12,000. This was mostly because of automation and robots.
I think that the biggest change was when GM decided to go to what they called "common platforms." When I started, each car was different from the others. Each Division had its own engine, transmission, axle, and suspension, but when they went to common platforms, they started using a single transmission, engine, axle, and suspension for all cars of that size.
Corporate styling also started dictating what the body size and shape would look like, and only the front fenders, bumpers and tail lights were different. Interiors were the same except the seat covers and instrument panels. People thought the cars were all the same, and they were. Performance, ride, and handling were all the same, as well as gas usage and maintenance. GM was trying to compete with itself and not with the competition. Doing things this way meant they could automate with less cost, as the tools were all the same, but it took away the individuality of the different divisions. I think this resulted in lost sales and profits.
LTK: What other auto industry issues have you seen over the years?
GW: Another problem occurred with the government dictating safety changes. Seat belts were already available, but few consumers would buy them because they cost more to install. I think more training for the drivers, similar to what we went through in order to drive at the Proving Grounds, would have done a better job of reducing deaths.
LTK: What do you think about the current push for fuel efficient vehicles?
GW: In 1973, GM went through a crash program to build fuel efficient cars because of gas prices at that time. When prices went back down, they went back to big expensive cars where there was more profit. They forgot what they learned.
Favorite Car Ever
LTK: You probably had a chance to drive a lot of great cars over the years, especially since you were involved in testing new vehicles. What was the best car you ever owned or drove?
GW: My favorite car was in the mid 1970s. It was a station wagon that had a vista dome on the top of the rear two seats. This gave a lot more headroom and made it a lot easier to get into the third seat. We took one to California with four kids. They each had their own window, and the trip was much nicer for the parents.
LoveToKnow Cars wants to thank George Wilson for telling us all about his experiences in the auto industry. It's great to have an inside perspective about how the car industry has changed over the years.