August 20, 2007

Horse 796 - What's Good For General Motors...

Charles Erwin Wilson is a name which probably only a few people may still remember. I suspect that this man however is responsible for more of the story of the motor car than any other.

Wilson started his career as an electrical engineer and was working for Westinghouse. Although mainly famous for producing big electrical motors for lifts and escalators, it was Wilson's very first patent which shifted the face of the motor car forever - the starter motor.
The 1911 Cadillac was the first motor car to make use of the technology and soon got the jump as General Motors installed it across the board. No longer was it necessary to start a car by crank handle.

He continued to work for Westinghouse and due to America's isolation was able to design military equipment free from annoyance. At the end of the war, he was headhunted by the Remy-Electric Company which later merged with Delco and by 1922 was their head engineer. Within four years he became president of the then world's largest auto-eletrics company.

Because Delco itself was part of the General Motors group of companies and because of Wilson's business sense, he was transferred to management in GM itself and from 1929 to 1939 was Vice-President. During the war he assumed the role of President and CEO and because he directed the massive defence budget of the company, he was awarded the US Medal of Merit.

This is where the story gets interesting: Wilson as president of General Motors was invited by US President Eisenhower to step into the role of Secretary of Defence from 1953 - 1957.

During his tenure as the Secretary of Defense, Wilson managed the military as though it were a business. He was initially hesitant to bring about change without conferring with the President, so much so, that Eisenhower reputedly said, "Charlie, you run defense. We both can't do it, and I won't do it. I was elected to worry about a lot of other things than the day-to-day operations of a department." Wilson later brought about a programmatic shift in the armed forces in preparation for modern warfare, including expanding research and development, cutting the size of the standing army, and boosting readiness for a nuclear conflict.

Wilson I suspect took this note to heart and was able to co-erce the President into passing a rather important piece of legislation, the Federal Highway Act of 1956. Basically as the largest public works system in history, the US system of expressways would cris-cross the country and instead of taking 25 years to compete and costing $25bn, it took 35 years and cost $114bn.

At the end of Wilson's tenure as Secretary of Defence, he then moved back to General Motors and it's little wonder that as the expressways spread across America; with all of these lovely roads to drive on, people tended to buy motor cars. It's fairly safe to say that there is a direct correlation between Wilson's role as Secretary of Defence and President of GM. Certainly GM benefitted greatly from it and only until recently was the world's largest company.

I'll let you make up your own mind as to whether you think he was estute or manipulative. In terms of sheer dollars spent, this one man directed more of them than any other in the history of the motor car. Were they well spent? For Charle Erwin Wilson? Yes.

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