Jerry York, RIP: Chrysler, Ford, GM Critic Told Inconvenient Truths

Last Updated Mar 24, 2010 5:53 PM EDT

The last time I saw auto industry gadfly Jerry York, in 2008, he had taken up flexible manufacturing as the Next Big Thing in the auto industry.

York, 71, died last week. Like a lot of inconvenient truths he pointed out over the years, he was right.

He was also right in the mid-2000s, when he said General Motors needed to dump Saab and Hummer, and Ford (F) needed to dump Volvo. He was right in the late 1980s when he said Chrysler wasn't doing enough to create shareholder value.

York joined Lee Iacocca and billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian back then in a failed bid to take over Chrysler. It made York persona non grata in Detroit, after a career that included a stint as Chrysler CFO. Ultimately, Chrysler kissed and made up with Iacocca, but not with York. Over the years, Kerkorian bought and eventually sold major stakes in Chrysler (twice), then GM, then Ford.

York was certainly wrong about one thing, which was that he actually seemed to expect the Detroit automakers to take his advice. For the most part they didn't, at least not until it was too late.

As for flexible manufacturing, the simple concept is that the same auto factory should be able to build different models, in response to changes in demand. For instance, York pointed out in a presentation in New York in 2008 that Honda (HMC) had flexible plants, and U.S. manufacturers mostly didn't (and don't).

I remember York fixed me with a tolerant look while I asked him a bunch of questions following his presentation. His glasses made his eyes look enormous. He smoked unapologetically. A car dealer approached him and stammered out a long story about how he was thinking of buying a Chrysler dealership, never quite getting to the point.

"You want me to tell you if it's a good idea?" York finally asked. The man nodded. "Pshhht!" York said. It was such a bad idea, York didn't even waste an actual word on it.

Later, I asked York jokingly if he needed help writing his memoirs. "Me, write an autobiography?" he said. "I've got too much to do."

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