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Ex-GM CEO Robert Stempel dies at 77

May 10, 2011

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.

"He was an outstanding powertrain engineer," said Lloyd Reuss, who was GM president during Stempel's tenure as chairman and CEO from August of 1990 to November of 1992.

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 Oldmobile 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 auto pollution and make cars more efficient, helping lead a companywide shift to smaller, more efficient vehicles, Reuss said. He also led development of the catalytic converter, which uses precious metals like platinum to convert the harmful gases from combustion into less harmful ones.

He led the push to develop the EV1 electric car in the 1990s, which is credited as breaking ground for GM's Volt electric car that's now on sale.

After he left GM, Stempel worked for Energy Conversion Devices, a car battery development company run by alternative energy innovator Stan Ovshinsky.

Stempel, Ovshinsky said, never complained about how he was treated at GM and remained loyal to the company.

He 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.

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