On this day in 1909 GM executive Ed Cole was born in Marne, Michigan. Though the son of a dairy farmer, Cole wasn’t much interested in the cows. He spent his youth designing, building and selling homemade radios. His first job in the auto industry was manning the counter at an auto parts store, which he did while attending Grand Rapids Community College. He’d later enroll at the General Motors Institute where he pursued an education in engineering. The GM leadership saw potential in Cole and kept him around. He eventually worked his way up the ladder, making his biggest splash to date as co-head of the team that developed the 1949 Cadillac V8.
In 1952 Cole was assigned as chief engineer of Chevrolet. His experience with the Cadillac V8 put him in prime position for his first assignment, creating a new motor for Chevrolet to replace its aging Stovebolt Six. His answer was the Chevy small block V8, which debuted in the 1955 Corvette and Bel Air. The engine remained in production for decades as a branch staple and continues to be a favorite among hot rodders. The success of the V8 saw Cole team up with the Father of the Corvette, Zora Arkus-Duntov, to retune the power-lacking Corvettes, establishing it as America’s Sports Car.
Cole was promoted to General Manager of Chevrolet in 1956. While sales were strong at the time, Cole foresaw a need to tackle the foreign influenced compact car market. He led the charge at Chevrolet with the radically designed Corvair. The rear engined, air-cooled car landed Cole on the cover of Time magazine’s October 5, 1959 issue.
Cole was promoted to head the GM car and truck group in 1961, then to executive vice-president in 1965, and finally elected president of GM in 1967. He would play a major role in weaning GM cars off of leaded gasoline and preparing them for catalytic converters mandated for the 1975 model year, though he would not stick around to oversee production.
Cole retired from GM in 1974 only to become chairman and CEO of Checker Motors Corporation and air-freight company Husky International. He died in 1977 when his personal plane he was piloting crashed during a storm near Kalamazoo, Michigan. He is a member of the Corvette Hall of Fame and the Automotive Hall of Fame.
Cover photo: Cole with the Chevrolet Corvair