Corvette Timeline Tails: Happy 99th Birthday Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen
One of the Unsung Heros of Corvettes & High Performance Chevrolets
Within the machinations of a big corporation, to get things done, it’s good to have an angel. Zora Arkus-Duntov had several angels. We’ve talked about Duntov’s relationship with Chevrolet honcho Ed Cole. But one angel that doesn’t get much attention was Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen.
Semon’s father was former GM president, William S. Knudsen. While this was helpful for the younger Kneudsen’s career, things weren’t handed to Bunkie – he had to work for what he accomplished. Like many teenage boys of his generation, Semon was interested in mechanical things. When he asked for a car, his Dad gave him one… in pieces for the young man to out back together. During his college years, Summer break meant a stint working at GM… on the assembly line. Upon graduation, Knudsen got a job at Pontiac in 1939 and quickly rose up through the management ranks. By 1956 he was the general manager at Pontiac.
The main job of every general manager is to increase sales. Like Chevrolet, Pontiac had a stogy public image. Bunkie assembled a team to jazz up the line and brought in Pete Estes from Oldsmobile, and John Z. DeLorean from Packard to create high performance version of his best -selling Pontiacs. Thus began the era of the “Wide Track Pontiac.” (Remember the ‘60s jingle, “Break away, to a wide track’n, Pon-tee-ack…”?) Within a few years, Pontiacs were a force to be contended with in NASCAR racing. Bunkie’s makeover of Pontiac put the division in third place in the industry and his reward was a promotion to head of the Chevrolet Division in 1961.
Immediately he started working his formula on the Chevy line by introducing the Super Sport models. The new Sting Ray was already in development and Knudsen’s passion for performance cars did not go unnoticed by Duntov. Even before the Sting Ray came out, it was obvious that the new car would not be competitive against the much lighter Shelby Cobras. Duntov pitched his plan for the “Lightweight” (as it was called before getting the Grand Sport moniker) to Knudsen and got a green light to proceed. When word made its way upstairs to the top floors at GM, Bunkie fought the good fight, and lost. From upon high in the office of Frederick Donner, there was no way that GM was going to openly get involved in racing – end of story.
But within a vast organization such as GM, entire miniature worlds can exist and Chevy’s “back door racing program” was one such world. At every step of the way, Knudsen helped Duntov and his crew whenever he could. In retrospect, Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen was every Chevy performance fan’s friend.
In the upper realms of corporate industrial America, it is often bare knuckles world. Knudsen eventually left GM for what I’m sure he thought would be a peach of a position as president of Ford Motor Company. But Ford turned out to be just as scrappy as GM. Knudsen arrived at Ford in February 1968 and was out the door 19 months later on September 2, 1969. It seemed that old timers in the upper ranks of Ford didn’t appreciate a lifelong GM man running the show. Knudsen was ceremoniously fired and the company went for more than a year without a president before Lee Iacocca was promoted to the position. Eight years later, it was Iacocca that was ceremoniously fired. Such is the revolving door of corporate America.
Knudsen was hired as president of the truck manufacturer, White Motor Company in ‘71 and stayed on until his retirement in 1980. Simon’s retirement years were somewhat uneventful and he passed on July 6, 1998. – Scott
PS – Here’s a list of Semon “Bunkie” Knudsen’s accomplishments in the automobile business.
* General manager of Pontiac
* Creation of the “Wide Track Pontiac”
* Involved Pontiac in NASCAR racing
* Tried to get dibs on the “personal luxury car” concept for Pontiac to compete with the Ford Thunderbird. Instead, Buick won the prize and brought out the Riviera.
* Launched the Pontiac Grand Prix, a “personal luxury / performance” version of the Catalina.
* Brought John DeLorean into Pontiac, who went on the develop the father of the modern “muscle car” the GTO.
* Rejected a Pontiac version of the Corvair. Instead developed the front-engine/rear transaxle design that would become the Olds F-85, Buick Special, and Pontiac Tempest.
* General manager of Chevrolet
* Introduced the “SS” Super Sport package, available on all cars, except the Corvair and Corvette.
* Went to bat for the Grand Sport Corvette.
* President of Ford
* Hired stylist Larry Shinoda away from GM to design the Boss 302 Mustang.
* Enlarged the ‘71 Mustang to mid-size proportions to accommodate the Boss 429 engine. (Must have seemed like a good idea at the time. I wouldn’t be too critical because Knudsen’s successor, lee Iacocca was responsible for the Pinto-based Mustang II, thus proving that lightning will not strike a second time using a Pinto platform.)
* President of the White Motor Company. (You could say that ol’Bunkie just “kept on truck’n!”)
PSS – For more information about Semon Knudsen’s ’63 Corvette Roadster, CLICK HERE.
For more information about Mrs. Knudsen’s ’64 Corvette Coupe, CLICK HERE.
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