The fall version of Bloomington Gold is coming up October 11-12 at the Hendrick Motorsports Campus in Charlotte, NC. This year the Gold Collection will pay tribute to Mr. Jim Perkins. Jim saved Corvette when it faced the chopping block the 1990s. If it weren’t for him, there might never have ever been a C5, C6, or C7, much less the new C8. We’ll get into that later.
Jim Perkins life exemplifies the American dream. He started at the bottom of the rung and went to the top of the ladder at Chevrolet.
J.C. “Jim” Perkins was born in Waco, Texas, on March 7, 1935, by his parents, Proctor and Carrie Perkins, and passed away on December 28, 2018, in Charlotte, North Carolina, at the age of 83. Jim was married to the love of his life, Barbara, for 51 years who preceded him in death. He is survived by his children, Steve Perkins (Tammy), Penni Watkins (Kenny) and Patrick Perkins (Mary).
Jim was a poor child. He grew up during the Depression. During his childhood, World War II broke out. Because of the war, you got ration cards for things like sugar, gas, and tires.
Jim’s dad got a job repairing military equipment and had to travel to work on the machinery. Due to his travel, he was able to get two sets of tires a year (Tires didn’t last long back then).
In an interview with Motor Trend Classic, Jim told how his father would buy a car without tires, put the tires on and drive it for a few months. Someone would trade him another vehicle (a little newer) without tires. He’d get his new set of tires, do a tune-up and repairs and he’d have a more modern car when he was done. He did this throughout the war and even afterward. Jim was with his dad all the time and did the light repair work along with his father. Soon this became a way to earn extra money for the family.
Jim got his first job at a Texaco station and worked on Saturdays and after school. It had a service rack, wash rack, and a place to do bodywork. Jim quickly became known around town as the best mechanic, especially on Chevys.
He was able to buy his first car at 14. It was a 1936 Ford. He loved to read all the hot rod magazines that he could get his hands on (Jim was more into hot-rods and drag racing at the time, not Vettes yet).
Unfortunately, he couldn’t afford the parts he needed for his “new” car. He was very creative and found stuff that he could make work. Swapped out the engine for a newer one, put a better transmission in his Ford. It wasn’t long, and he started to buy, repair and sell cars, just like his dad did.
He told how he bought two 1941 Fords, one had front end damage and the other had rear damage, so he put the two good ends together and sold the car. He even bought a bootlegger’s car along the way.
He was driving a 1952 Oldsmobile and sold it so he could buy the new 1955 Chevy that had just come out.
Jim proudly served in the U.S. Navy from 1953-1957 before attending his hometown university, Baylor. Baylor University is the oldest continuously operating university in Texas and one of the first educational institutions west of the Mississippi River in the United States.
Texan at heart, Jim loved his cowboy boots. Many remember Jim wearing his cowboy boots as he passed out Chevy Bowtie lapel pins featuring the word “Proud” and his zeal and message, as he touted Chevy’s made-in-U.S.A. pedigree.
Trying to get a job at G.M., boots and all, he hung out in the lobby of G.M.’s Dallas regional office in 1960. It paid off, and he finally got a warehouse job. At the time this was the lowest entry-level position within Chevrolet Motor Division, but his foot was in the door, and his legendary career in the car business began.
While he was sorting parts in a Chevy warehouse, he was eventually able to complete his degree.
Jim quickly established himself as a “leader’s leader,” rising through the ranks and holding a variety of management roles at Chevrolet. His route up the ladder at Chevy led him all over the country. He was a zone manager in San Diego and Dallas, director of the customer service for the Mideast region, director of marketing policy and dealer relations for all General Motors, and assistant general sales manager at Buick. One promotion led to another, and in about 20 years, Perkins was the general manager of the Chevrolet brand (more on that later).
During the 1960s, Chevy was the most significant car division in the largest car company in the world. At that time, one out of every four new cars and half of the light trucks sold in America were Chevys. There were more than 6500 Chevy dealers. Chevy had the most massive sales army in the industry, and Chevy pride was Hugh. The salespeople bled bowtie blue and oozed with pride.
But along the way, things deteriorated.
In Jim’s interview with Motor Trend Classic, he talked about the decline at G.M., “I think the single biggest thing was sharing parts and components among all the vehicle lines. I understand why it was done, but the brands started losing their identity.”
He noted that because of the move to robotics in the plants that it “scared the hell out of the unions because it went against their full-employment-for-life idea.” He went on to say, “I think there was – I won’t say sabotage – less of an effort to make it work.” He also sited that the styling got old. “There were so many things; you can’t point your finger at anyone.”
Jim loved working at Buick under General Manager Lloyd Reuss (Lloyd E. Reuss was also the former president at G.M. from 1990 to 1992 and father of Mark L. Reuss the current President of General Motors).
During that period, they had a record the two years Jim was there. Lloyd got promoted, and Don Hackworth from Canada took his position. Jim said the environment changed and he would bump heads with Hackworth. On a flight, Jim and Don talked, and Don wanted Jim to take a foreign assignment. What Don didn’t know was that Jim already had an offer from Toyota. Jim later said that is “what pushed me over the edge.”
So, in 1984, Jim left Chevrolet to join Toyota. As senior vice-president of its brand-new Lexus Division, he was instrumental in the design, development, and introduction of Toyota’s first luxury brand. Jim led the launch of the Lexus and played an essential role in giving it a fabulously successful American debut.
While Jim was at Toyota, his former employers had not forgotten him. He started getting calls from G.M. In the past, no one had ever left G.M. and been asked to come back, and surely, Jim never expected to go back. Lloyd Reuss said (then-GM president) Bob Stempel wanted to talk with him about coming back.
Jim told them, “There are two jobs I would come back for—president of General Motors or general manager of Chevrolet.”
He said, “Well, that’s a little lofty. We would have to bring you back into the corporation, then get you to one of the divisions when we have an opportunity.”
Jim said, “No, it would have to be one of those two jobs.”
But they kept talking, and one day he got the phone call, “OK, big boy, it’s time to put up or shut up. We’ll make you the general manager of Chevrolet.”
After four and a half years, his time at Toyota ended, and he made the surprise return to General Motors. In May 1989, he succeeded the retiring Bob Burger as Chevy general manager. If he had he not returned to General Motors, the C5 might never have been produced.
Now back at Chevrolet, he was inheriting a brand that was in terrible shape, worse than when he left.
Things were so bad in the late 1980s that the brand’s flagship sports car, the Corvette, was planned for discontinuation.
He said in the interview, “I didn’t recognize Chevrolet when I went back. It had lost its pride. There was so much infighting among sales, marketing, product planning, distribution; you name it. Everywhere you looked was a silo with its own management, and that’s the kiss of death. It took about a year to replace some top managers with people who would be a lot more responsive. TCE (Total Customer Enthusiasm) had to start at the top, so we had to move some people out who had been there a long time and had a bad attitude about things.”
To improve customer enthusiasm, dealers got sensitivity training on the way they dealt with customers and each other. Jim believed that people who work in the company had to be advocates for it. He started including everyone in everything that was done holding massive get-togethers to talk about what was going on, business results, and what they were facing.
Jim asked people to write to him about the problems they were running into and their idea on how to fix them. He got 1900 responses and read every one of them. Employee councils were formed to work out the problems, and many of them were fixed. He also had a much happier group!
He did this with the dealers as well. Jim asked them what Chevy was doing wrong and how they could better improve and help take care of their customers better. They formed a Small-Dealer Council for smaller dealers to help improve products and service.
At the time Jim went back to Chevrolet, they were in a product drought. The first two cars he launched were the Caprice and the Chevrolet Lumina APV.
“When I realized how shallow the product program was, I thought, how in the world are we going to survive this? But we took that Caprice and did some work on it on the police chassis, got the suspension tightened up, opened up the wheel wells, put wider tires and wheels on it, and at least made it respectable.” The Chevrolet Caprice Classic LTZ was the 1991 Motor Trend Car of the Year.
He was a general manager from 1989-1996. Jim did a lot in the seven years he ran Chevy. He won more truck production. Perkins won respect and admiration of dealers. During this period, he reinvigorated Chevy’s products with sixteen new vehicle lines and restored its prominence in the industry. He saw increased sales and vastly improved customer and dealer relations.
As head of Chevrolet, Jim also supervised a Chevy racing program. It produced five NASCAR manufacturer’s championships, six Indy 500 victories and dominated all classes of open-wheel motorsports during his seven-year tenure.
“General Motors, Roger Penske, Paul Morgan, and Mario Illien each owned 25 percent of Ilmore Engineering, and we put X amount of money into it each year.” After 1993, Roger told G.M. that the price was going up and it would require more money if they wanted to continue. So, Jim decided to get out.
Jim wanted to do the 24 hours of Le Mans and Daytona with Corvette. They shuffled the money around, and G.M. Divisions dropped out of NASCAR freeing up the capital. Jim felt that it didn’t make sense that all the G.M. Divisions were racing against each other.
But as Corvette enthusiast’s, one of his signature achievements was saving Chevrolet’s flagship model, the Corvette. Jim Perkins was honored in 1999 with induction into the Corvette Hall of Fame at the NCM, and in 2013 he was inducted into the Bloomington Gold Hall of Fame. Under his leadership, Corvette went from the chopping block to be the 1998 Motor Trend Car of the Year.
When Perkins returned in 1989 to Chevy, he knew it needed a shakeup from the top down. G.M. brass had determined that the Corvette was “nonessential,” and there wasn’t going to be a C5.
Perkins found the money to go ahead and fund the prototypes for the C4 Corvette’s replacement which would eventually become the C5. If it weren’t for Perkins, the Corvette likely would have ended with the C4 model. He had the opportunity to move some funds around, and he did that secretly, causing no end of agony among the auditors.
A personal highlight in his career was driving the pace car for the prestigious Indianapolis 500 on three occasions: 1990, 1993 and 1995.
Jim retired from the company in 1996. Ironically, though, Perkins wasn’t there for the launch of the 1997 Corvette.
After he retired, Jim had five job opportunities. He decided to join Rick Hendrick in July 1996. Rick wanted him to assist him in taking the company public and was doing a lot of things in motorsport. In November, Rick had developed leukemia, and he asked Jim to take the company over. Jim became president and CEO of the Charlotte, North Carolina-based Hendrick Automotive Group in 1997. He was responsible for the direction and growth of one of the largest automotive retailers in the United States until 2005. He then became the first president and COO of The Hendrick Cos. There he turned his attention to building specialty products for Hendrick’s aftermarket Camaros, built high-performance Camaros and restored classic cars and old race cars.
In the Motor Trend interview, Jim said, “If ever anything has been rewarding, it has been seeing this company do what it has done. I have no regrets. It’s been a blast, a great, great, great ride.”
Jim was a three-time recipient of the Automotive News Automotive All-Star Award and served on a variety of boards, including for Bass Pro Shops, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Boys & Girls Clubs of Southeastern Michigan, and Axxess Technologies.
A genuine auto enthusiast and preservationist, Jim was a collector of muscle cars – all Chevrolet – and car memorabilia. His collection of vintage Chevys includes a speedy ’57 Bel Aire sport coupe, a rare ’69 Camaro RS/SS, a ’55 Bel Air, a ’38 street rod, and a 1993 Indy 500 Camaro pace replica with a factory-installed manual tranny — the only one in existence.
He was an avid freshwater fisherman and especially cherished spending time with his family and friends. A Texan through and through, he maintained a residence in Arlington until his death.
Jim was inducted into the Bloomington Gold Hall of Fame in 2013. You can read about the 2013 Hall of Fame HERE.
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