On this day in 1909 General Motors executive Ed Cole was born in Marne, Michigan. The son of a dairy farmer, Cole spent his youth designing, building and selling homemade radios before becoming a field representative for a tractor manufacturing company. 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 (now Kettering University in Flint, MI), where he pursued an education in engineering. The GM leadership realized the potential Cole had and kept him around post graduation. His consistent performance led him to being assigned co-head of development, alongside Henry Barr, for the 1949 Cadillac V8 engine.
The successes of the Caddy saw Cole promoted to chief engineer of Chevrolet in 1952. As chief he would be a driving force in the final engineering of the first Corvette. He simultaneously had another big job on his plate: create a new motor to replace Chevy’s Stovebolt Six. His answer was the Chevrolet small block V8, a legendary engine series to this day. It was first available as the 265 cubic inch “Turbo Fire” V8 for 1955. Cole and the Father of the Corvette, Zora Arkus-Duntov, teamed up to ensure the new powerplant would fit into the power-lacking Corvette. The additional cylinders, first available in 1955, would help establish the Corvette as America’s Sports Car.
Cole was promoted to General Manager of Chevrolet in 1956. While sales at Chevy were strong at the time, Cole aimed his sights on the foreign influenced compact car market. He led the charge with the radically designed Corvair. The rear engined, air-cooled Chevrolet landed Cole and the car 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. He was handed the presidency of General Motors in 1967. As president, Cole played a major role in weaning GM cars off of leaded gasoline and preparing them for catalytic converters, which were to be required starting with the 1975 model year. He left before production began. Following his retirement from GM in 1974 he decided he wasn’t ready to call it quits. He became chairman and CEO of Checker Motors Corporation and air-freight company Husky International, but he wouldn’t hold the jobs long.
Ed Cole died in 1977 when his personal plane he was piloting crashed during a storm near Kalamazoo, Michigan. Cole has been posthumously inducted into the Corvette Hall of Fame and the Automotive Hall of Fame.