"My generation had an opportunity unique in the history of American industry," wrote Alfred Pritchard Sloan Jr. two years ago in his memoirs. Of all men of any generation, few have made more of their opportunities than he did.
As president of General Motors Corp. from 1923 to 1937, as board chairman until 1956 and as G.M.'s still active honorary chairman until the day of his death, at 90, last week, Sloan was a towering figure of U.S. industry. Under him, G.M. grew from a frail follower of Ford into the world's largest and most profitable corporation. As much as any other individual, Sloan shaped the auto industry, which itself reshaped the entire U.S. economy and, in Sloan's words, changed "the pace and style of everyday life in America."
Selling Ideas. Sloan was a man of almost cadaverous appearance (6 ft., 130 Ibs.) and unfailing courtesy. "I never give orders," he once said. "I sell my ideas to my associates if I can." He generally could, and many of his ideas still stand as guiding principles for G.M. In the auto industry's infancy, Henry Ford produced economical, unchanging, sober-styled Model Ts for a mass market. It was Sloan who first sensed that Americans wanted something more than mere wheels and a combustion engine. "Mr. Ford," he later recalled, "failed to realize that it was necessary for new cars to do more than meet the need for basic transportation. Middle-income buyers created the demand for progress in new cars, for comfort, convenience, power and style. This was the actual trend of American life, and those who adapted to it prospered."
Under Sloan's pioneering presidency, G.M. emphasized the closed body instead of the open touring car, pushed used-car trade-ins, installment buying, annual model changes, and built a six-car price range from Chevrolet to Cadillac that encouraged buyers to trade up. Sloan had definite ideas about styling, and he did not always like what he saw, even at G.M. In 1957 he was particularly distressed at one industry trend. "They're not making cars any more," he complained. "They're making fins."
"He Should Be President." Sloan originally came to G.M. through a rear door. He was born in New Haven, Conn., and early in life showed a natural mechanical ability. He earned an engineering degree from M.I.T. in a whirlwind three years, then went to work for the near-bankrupt Hyatt Roller Bearing Co. of Harrison, N.J. Convinced that Hyatt had possibilities, Sloan persuaded his father, a well-to-do wholesale grocer and tea importer, to buy a controlling interest in Hyattand let Junior run the company. Within six months, Hyatt began to show profits. Within 17 years, profits had mounted to $4,000,000 a yearmostly because Sloan had persuaded Detroit's fledgling automakers that they ought to substitute bearings for the wagon grease they had been using to lubricate axles and transmissions.