DETROIT — 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.
He joined GM in 1958, and one of his first assignments was designing a wheel. In 1966, he worked on the Oldsmobile Toronado, 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 also pushed the development of GM’s EV1 electric car in the 1990s.
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.