Cole, Edward N.

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Edward N. Cole

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Edward N. Cole was elected president and chief operating officer of General Motors on October 30, 1967. He served in that capacity until his retirement on September 30, 1974. His career at General Motors lasted more than 44 years and he is widely recognized as one of the most innovative leaders in the history of the automobile industry.

Cole was born on September 17, 1909, at Marne, Michigan. As a youth his ambition was to become a lawyer. He attended Grand Rapids Junior College to prepare for a legal career, but his interest turned to mechanics after a summer job with Hayes Body Corporation, an automobile supply company.

He enrolled at General Motors Institute (GMI) at Flint, Michigan in 1930, under the sponsorship of GM's Cadillac Motor Car Division. Because of his talents, he was taken from school before graduation and assigned to a special engineering project at Cadillac.

Cole advanced through several positions at Cadillac and in 1943 became chief design engineer responsible for the U.S. Army light tanks and combat vehicles.

With the end of World War II and Cadillac's return to civilian production, he was promoted to chief engineer of Cadillac in 1946 and to works manager at Cadillac in 1950. During this time, he played an important role in the development of Cadillac’s high compression, short-stroke V8 engine.

The Korean conflict found him in another difficult assignment. He was made manager of the Cleveland Tank Plant and got the new plant into full production three months ahead of schedule.

Ed Cole and the '60 Corvair
In 1952, he was promoted to chief engineer of the Chevrolet Motor Division. Four years later, in July 1956, he was named general manager of Chevrolet — GM's largest automotive division — and a vice president of General Motors. At Chevrolet, Cole pushed for many of the major engineering and design advancements introduced in the Chevrolet car and truck lines between 1955 and 1962. He was the moving force behind the development and production of the rear-engined, air-cooled Corvair. Despite its infamous history, the Corvair was a ground-breaking small car in its day. As chief engineer, he was heavily involved in the development of the Corvette sports car. He is also known as the "father" of the small block Chevy V8, one of the most celebrated engines in automotive history.

Cole was elected a member of the Board of Directors of General Motors and appointed group executive in charge of the car and truck divisions in November 1961.

He was elected an executive vice president in July 1965, and given jurisdiction over all the general staff activities of the Corporation. In that position, Cole directed the operation of the Engineering, Manufacturing, Marketing, Personnel, Public Relations, Research and Styling staffs, as well as the GM Patent Section. He was serving in that position when elected to the GM presidency.

Cole and the Rotary Engine
During his term as president of the corporation, Cole continued to be hands on when it came to the company’s products and advance engineering projects. In the early 1970s, he was major advocate for the improvement of the Rotary engine. At the same time, he helped to speed along the development of the Air Cushion Restraint System (air bags).

Cole was also instrumental in General Motors’ push to discover a way to control exhaust emissions. He had the vision to realize that federal regulations concerning air pollution would tighten in the coming years. In 1970, Cole commanded GM engineers to lower engine compression ratios and design powerplants that could be run on unleaded gasoline. He saw that the new environmental rules would also call for “exhaust scrubbers” to reduce automobile pollution. Under Cole’s leadership, General Motors developed the catalytic converter and introduced it on the 1975 model year cars. This engineering marvel allowed the company to reduce emissions and improve the fuel economy of its vehicles at the same time. At the time of his retirement in 1974, Ed Cole held eighteen separate patents but the catalytic converter was possibly his greatest engineering triumph.

Edward N. Cole died at the controls of his private plane in a crash near Kalamazoo, Michigan on May 2, 1977. At the time of his death, he was chairman and CEO of Checker Motor Corporation. Hands on until the end, Cole was flying to that company’s headquarters where he was in the midst of a redesign of the company’s taxicabs.