Gerald C. Meyers, who went from top product engineer to CEO at American Motors Corp. during an era that produced the AMC Pacer and Gremlin vehicles, died on June 19.
Meyers, 94, died of natural causes at his home in West Bloomfield, according to his family.
The son of a successful immigrant tailor from Poland, Meyers worked hard to get to the top of the automotive industry and his career included stints at Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp., his daughter Susan Meyers told the Detroit Free Press.
He graduated from Bennett High School in Buffalo, New York, in 1945 and initially attended Canisius College in his hometown. He went on to Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, to captain the football team and earn a bachelor of science degree in engineering. He dug ditches on road crews during the summer to earn money and stay in shape for football. He worked briefly at Ford and served in the US Air Force in Greenland during the Korean conflict.
Meyers would return to earn a master’s degree in business, magna cum laude, at Carnegie Tech, before heading to Detroit to work at Chrysler. Early roles included running a stamping factory in Cleveland. He married Barbara Jacob in Detroit in 1958. Shortly after, Chrysler sent the couple to Geneva, Switzerland. That’s where their daughter Susan was born. The family would later make a home in Huntington Woods.
The finale of Gerald Meyers’ career trajectory would happen at AMC:
Director of purchasing
Director of manufacturing
Vice president of product engineering
Executive vice president
chief operating officer
President and chief executive officer in 1977
At age 49, he was the youngest CEO in the industry, according to “Storied independent automakers: Nash, Hudson and American Motors,” by Charles Hyde.
Meyers was also Jewish, a fact noted and celebrated by fellow Jews in Detroit, his daughter noted.
Susan Meyers said: “He was in as deep as it got in the 1970s as the auto industry tried to respond to regulation, then an oil crisis, then an overseas invasion of small cars. He engineered AMC’s merger with Renault and received (the Cross) of the) French Legion of Honor for it.”
Renault, owned by the French government, acquired nearly half of AMC stock in exchange for an estimated $300 million, according to news reports at the time. The company was acquired by Chrysler less than a decade later, and included Jeep.
‘An important legacy’
“Meyers came to power at a difficult time, with sales hampered by a recession,” said Matt Anderson, curator of transportation at The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn. “But he brought a youthful outlook and energy that were crucial under the circumstances. He pared down AMC’s operations and offerings, and he catered to overlooked markets with cars like the four-wheel-drive Eagle.”
Meyer’s resignation in 1982 at age 53, after four years at the helm, was characterized as a “shake-up” engineered by Renault that surprised Wall Street because Meyers had been promoting long-range plans for the nation’s fourth largest automaker, The Washington Post reported at the time.
“That era, in general, was when the American auto manufacturers were reinventing the product lineup for what was the new reality — emissions standards, gas prices were high and, by and large, automakers didn’t have a good solution for compact cars. Then came the Pacer. Some people would call the design quirky but it has a lot of function to it with big doors,” said longtime industry analyst Jonathan Klinger. “AMC was the underdog of American manufacturers. They were the last of the independents below the Big 3. They didn’t have a big budget for research and development, but their cars stood out not only in design but also the funkiest color combinations and interiors. They pushed the envelope where they could.”
Klinger, a trustee of the Automotive Restoration Program at McPherson College in Kansas, added, “If the 1970s is looked at as the ‘malaise era,’ the Pacer and Gremlin are standouts amongst their peers.”
Meyers was especially proud of a deal with Levi Strauss that allowed AMC to produce Jeeps with blue jean upholstery, his daughter said. “They couldn’t play it safe, my father felt. The company had to find its own way. And they took chances and were very creative.”
Father of the bumper-to-bumper warranty
Roy D. Chapin, who preceded Meyers as chairman of the AMC board, was quoted by The Washington Post as saying, “All board members value Gerry Meyers’ great contributions during the 20 years he has been with the company. … We are confident that the strong management team which succeeds him will effectively carry out the company’s new product programs which were begun under his far-sighted leadership.”
Meyers has been credited with introducing the industry’s first 12-month or 12,000-mile bumper-to-bumper warranty, according to the 1976 book “Contemporary Business” by Louis Boone.
Most of her father’s peers are gone now, said Susan Meyers, 63, a writer and artist who lives in Falmouth, Massachusetts. “He was very important in Detroit for a period of time and just an incredibly kind person.”
He loved sailing his Hobie Cat catamaran with an orange and yellow stripe on Elizabeth Lake or Orchard Lake with his children after work, his daughter said. He listened to opera almost every night until his final days. His mother, a singer discovered at age 14 in Canton, Ohio, was an understudy for soprano Helen Traubel at The Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Gerald and Barbara Meyers had two children after Susan: Andrew, who died in 2019; and Nancy Meyers of Bloomfield Hills.
Memories of 25704 Ivanhoe
“We lived right across the street from the Detroit Zoo,” Susan Meyers said laughing. “He took me to the zoo once when I was 5. He didn’t bring enough money for lunch. We had to walk through the zoo to the fence in front of our house, and dad stood there and yelled, “Barbara! Barbara!” and I yelled, “Mommy! Mommy!” and she came out of the house in an apron looking really confused. He asked her for his wallet. I asked for food. She went back inside, came out with his wallet and a crinkled brown bag of sandwiches, and threw both over the fence.”
Susan Meyers thought all dads brought home new cars every weekend, testing what competitors designed and checking how they drove. “We had a paperboy whose jaw dropped every time he rode up our driveway,” she said.
Susan Meyers totaled a bright yellow brand new Pacer two weeks after her 16th birthday.
As a mother, she noticed her son Jacob was “obsessed” with cars. One day, when Meyers picked up her son from first grade in Brookline, Massachusetts, the child’s teacher “Ms. Yee,” said, “You’ll never believe what Jacob said today. He told us his grandfather was the chairman of American Motors .”
“His teacher thought it was wishful thinking run amok,” Susan Meyers said. “She waited for me to roll my eyes and say, ‘Kids, aren’t they crazy?’ Instead I looked at her bashfully and said, ‘Well, it’s true.’ “
Teaching at Carnegie Mellon, University of Michigan
After Meyers left the automotive industry, he didn’t stop working. He ran a consulting business and became a professor at his alma mater, Carnegie Mellon, in the Graduate School of Industrial Administration from 1984 to 1990. Meyers wrote “When It Hits the Fan, Managing the Nine Crises of Business,” published by Houghton- Mifflin.
He moved on to the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where, for 26 years until 2017, he taught a course that brought in top executives from Whole Foods, Harley-Davidson, and others from around the country to talk about how they led their company through the crisis. His course always had a waitlist, Susan Meyers said.
“He skied the Alps, biked the roads and enjoyed a good spaghetti Bolognese,” Susan Meyers said. “He had a great sense of humor, was kind and gentle with everyone he met, and he was deeply informed about the world.”
To this day, the family still remembers hearing how the Gremlin was designed by Dick Teague, who first sketched it out on the back of an airsickness bag midflight, Susan Meyers said. “My father was sitting next to him and they were strategizing about how AMC could build a small car to meet Japanese competition in the 1970s.”
Gerald Meyers was a strategic thinker who wrote a life plan in 1954 at age 26, his daughter said. “It is an amazing document, like a spreadsheet, listing which dates when he wanted to marry, how many children he wanted to have and when, the salaries he wanted to earn and at what age, the management positions he wanted to hold when he was 35, 45, 55 and 65. He accomplished every dang one, when planned, as planned.”
Funeral services were held privately. Because Meyers loved dogs, especially bassett hounds and dachshunds, the family requested donations to be made to any local animal welfare organization.
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Gerald Meyers, former CEO of American Motors, died at 94