Central Oklahoma Classic Chevy Club
General Motor's Curtice, Page 3 of 4.
For all his energy, Harlow Curtice never seems to be in a hurry. From his 30-ft.-square office in Detroit's General Motors Building, he runs G.M.'s worldwide empire with an informality that is
almost offhand. His long workdays (8 a.m. to 6 or 7 P.M.) are crammed with visits from admen,
engineers, lawyers, production men and especially G.M. dealers to whom his door is always open,
Several times a day he may drop in on G. M.'s styling section to see how the latest dream cars are coming along.
Curtice has a Farleyesque memory for names, stores up facts and figures like a Univac computer.
Says one associate: "You'd better not tell him something one day and something else another
day, even if it's a year later. But if you're working like hell, he is quick to forgive mistakes." He talks out problems with associates, listens to every angle, then makes his decisions quickly and without worry. Says Curtice: "The best committee is the committee of one." But Curtice's greatest talent is his innate knowledge of what will tickle an auto buyer's fancy - and open up his pocketbook. Says G.M.'s Chief Designer Harley Earl: "Curtice is the best shopper we've ever had."
Curtice has a hot-rodder's feeling for cars, likes to trick up his own cars with new gadgets and styling changes. While former President Charlie Wilson was content to travel around in a sedate Cadillac sedan, Red Curtice likes to dash around his home town of Flint in a sporty grey-blue Buick Skylark. (He had it fitted with a wrap-around windshield long before it came out on the production models.) For Vice President Early, who has built up the greatest industrial designing organization in the world, Curtice is a one-man poll to test new ideas. The trick, says Curtice, is simply to find the proper balance between the new and the old. Says he: "We must
create'used cars by bringing out new ones. But the new cars must not be too radical, or they will not sell. Automobile owners are among the most conservative people in the world."
On dozens of occasions, Curtice has displayed his knack for picking automotive winners. In 1940
he brought out the first two-tone car. In 1948, for a special investment bankers'show, Curtice ordered a Buick combining the all-weather protection of a coupe' with the sporty look of a convertible. The car was the Buick Riviera, the nation's first mass-produced hardtop convertible, a style that proved so popular that it now accounts for 54 % of Buick's sales.
A few years ago, a G.M. designer in his spare time tricked up his Buick with holes in the fender
and flashing lights inside to create an impression of supercharged power. Curtice happened to see the car. Result: the next models were the three-holer and four-holer cars. When Harley Earl first showed Curtice the panoramic windshield on the experimental Sabre and Buick XP-300, Curtice's reaction was typical: "Boy, that's good. Let's put it into production." When G.M. engineers experimented with such devices as the foot parking brake and Dynaflow transmission, Curtice, the perfect customer, tried them and quickly ordered them on production models. One Curtice disappointment has been Chevrolet's glass-fiber Corvette, which he ordered Chevy to make to compete with foreign sports cars. He hoped to sell 1,000 a month, but production is down to only 300 a month because of slow sales. Probable reason: buyers cannot get the car without also buying $500 in extra equipment.
To make the changes he wants, Curtice can also find corner-cutting tricks. When he first saw sketches of a Buick that carried the fender line back into the body for the first time, he did not wait for the year-long process of changing dies. Instead, he devised a method of bolting extra panels of metal on to the old body to get the new style into his showrooms as quickly as possible. While looking over one recent model, Curtice spotted a flaw in its lines, was told that it was far too late to do anything about it. Said he: "To hell with the time element; let's make the change."
On the Spot.
Curtice is a great believer in on-the-spot decisions when he has seen for himself what all the facts are. When he left for a quick tour of G.M.'s European plants six weeks ago, his plans
were to spend $172 million expanding plants in England and Germany. But in Belgium, while touring G.M.'s assembly plant at Antwerp, Curtice was told that $6,000,000 was needed for more
space and equipment. There had been no plan to expand in Belgium, but Curtice, in typical fashion, agreed to appropriate the money. The Swiss assembly plant, he learned, needed $3,500,000. Go right ahead, said Curtice, the money will come through. G.M.'s Swedish, French and Danish subsidiaries asked for money, and Curtice promised to work it out.
As the first G.M. president to make such a grand tour of foreign plants, Curtice rang up good press notices everywhere. Said Britain's Motor Trader in clipped accents: "America could export more of this type of American." Said Berlingske Tidende, Denmark's leading daily, after a Curtice press conference: "It was really felt that here was a magnate who had succeeded in performing the miracle to preserve his soul in company with an annual turnover of 70 thousand million kroner."
$637,233 a Year. Curtice's well-preserved soul is evident in everything that he does. As the highest-paid man in industry ($637,233 in salary and bonuses last year), he commutes to Detroit from Flint, where he lives simply with his wife in an eleven-room house that is cared for by only one servant. (Daughters Dorothy Anne, 21, and Catherine Dale, 17, are away at school; Mary Leila, 25, is married.) On weekends he likes to drop in on the nearby Buick division, shoot the breeze with anyone from a sweeper to a foreman.
His pleasures are simple; near the top of the list is a good game of poker for sizable stakes with neighbors and G.M. friends. He likes to dance (last summer he and his youngest daughter won a prize at Cape Cod, Mass., where he goes on vacation). Twice a year, he gets away on hunting trips, always insists on walking every field himself just to make sure that no bird is missed. Anyone who starts talking business with the boss on these occasions is likely to be presented by the rest of the group with a well-polished aluminum apple made in a G.M. shop.
Curtice enjoys practical jokes, even when they are on him (his companions once brought along a
wired blanket and gave him a tooth-tingling shock when he sat on it). At a party after he became president of General Motors, eveyone thought it a great idea to present him with a chef's outfit to kid the boss - the small-town boy who made good - about one of his early jobs.
Harlow Herbert Curtice was born (1893) in the little crossroad town of Petrieville, Mich., the second son of a wholesale-produce man. (Curtice's older brother, LeRoy, has been an hourly paid paint-and-metal inspector at G.M.'s Fisher Body, plant since 1936.) After graduating from high school, Curtice worked for a year in a local woolen mill, saved up enough to go to Big Rapids Ferris Institute. To pay his way, he worked as a short-order cook in the Blue Front Cafe. Eager
to get on in the world he quit Ferris after two years, moved to Ma Kelleher's boarding house in
Flint where he got room and board for $3 a week. He answered an AC Spark Plug want ad for a
bookkeeper, was asked in the interview what his ambition might be. Said the brash young man to
his future boss: "Your job, within a year."
Return to "Memory Lane" index.