God bless the carmakers brave enough to launch a new car at the 2013 Detroit auto show with a nameplate that didn’t begin with a COR and end with a VETTE. The rest of a very lively show gave the 5212 journalists present many other cool ways to kill time until the Chevy crowd in the very back of Cobo Center cleared, oh, about six hours after the 8:35 a.m. Stingray unveiling.
Right now, though, I would like to give General Motors North America president Mark Reuss a moment in the sun. Because I like him. Because I like his passion, his sense of humor, and his feistiness. He’s not afraid to blast naysayers on his Facebook page (in between very warm posts about his three kids) and got extremely grouchy a couple of years ago when I suggested that he had Ford to thank for keeping American cars on the map during the dark days. “I’m not thanking them for anything,” he shot back. “All they do is throw F-bombs at us. Farley. Focus. Fusion.” Funny.
Mark was just out of high school when I met him, which was maybe at the Indy 500 or at Michigan International Speedway. “Neither,” he said, when I brought it up recently. “It was the first F1 race in Detroit. We were standing near the entrance to the circuit, at the Chevy corral. You were wearing a checkered-flag shirt. I saw you at every race after that.” Whoa, Rainman.
What I remember was the bond between son and father Lloyd, an engineer who conceived the two-seat Reatta while running Buick and presided over the hot stock-block Buick turbo V-6 that won the first two starting positions in the 1985 Indy 500. Lloyd’s career arced from there, and he preceded Mark as GM president by nineteen years. Sadly, the country had plunged into recession, and GM suffered badly. In a 1992 boardroom coup, vice chairman Jack Smith tossed out the car guys, including the elder Reuss, and instituted deep cost reductions.
Mark had been a GM intern while working on his mechanical engineering degree at Vanderbilt. Yet it was not a foregone conclusion that he would end up as a GM lifer.
“When I graduated college, I worked in a lab at the proving grounds,” he tells me. “I went back to business school. After that, I interviewed with Ford extensively. Extensively. They had a tremendous program for engineers coming out of college.
“I had a heart-to-heart with my dad. At the time, Chevy was introducing the King of the Hill ZR1 with the all-aluminum Mercury Marine LT5 V-8. He took me out to see it and said, ‘Look what we make. They don’t make any of that over there.’ At that time, I owned a 1969 427, 400-hp tripower silver Vette. I said: ‘All right. You’re right.’ ” Fast forward to January 2013.
You can imagine his emotions as he unveiled the Stingray.
“It was kind of like getting married but different. You know it’s going to be magical. You can’t stop what you’re going to feel.
“I cried. Yes, I did. Honestly, the tears came earlier, at an event for my guys. I could feel that this was going to be pivotal for the company and the employees. No one from the past could say they did this car. This happened after the bankruptcy. Enough already, with people taking credit for our achievements.”
Mark insists that it’s “highly motivating” when he’s negatively referred to as a GM lifer: “Everyone talks about the old GM and the new GM. But the old guys, the good guys, made sure GM had the right stuff. They are the real mothers and fathers of the new GM.”
Lloyd Reuss and Bob Stempel were the last real car guys in GM management (if we don’t count the emergency tenure of Bob Lutz). Mark doesn’t want to speculate on what his success might mean to his father’s legacy. “I’m not smart enough to know that,” he says. “It’s important that he feels good about what we’re doing now. Remember, he was given twenty months. I’ve been at it four years now.”
It doesn’t look likely that there’s going to be a third-generation Reuss at GM anytime soon. Mark’s son, a high-school junior who is a strapping left-handed star pitcher, has a full baseball scholarship to the University of Michigan, but it is almost assured that he’ll be drafted by the majors out of high school. According to his proud dad, that draft will be deferred while his son completes his education at U of M.
“I told him that in baseball, you’re only one injury away from working the counter at Mickey D’s.”