Story of the Week

Posted: 04.14.2015
Remembering Semon E. Knudsen
By: Robert Tate, Automotive Historian/Researcher
Images: Courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection

 

Mr. Semon E Knudsen was the son the late Mr. William S. Knudsen, who served as General Motors President from 1937 to 1940. Semon Knudsen was born on October 2, 1912 in Buffalo New York. Knudsen's nickname “Bunkie” was created by his father. A graduate of Dartmouth College and Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Semon was a member of the Society of Automotive Engineers and the American Society of Tool Engineers.
 
Simon Knudsen speaking with Harley Earl
 
Mr. Knudsen's journey began by working in Detroit area machine shops. Later, his career would continue within Pontiac’s Motor Division in 1939. As his career evolved, he would serve in various capacities at General Motors including General Manager of Detroit Diesel Engine Division, General Manager of Pontiac Motor Division, General Manager of Chevrolet Motor Division, and even Executive Vice President in charge of the overseas and Canadian subsidiaries and all domestic nonautomotive and defense divisions. Mr. Knudsen was also elected to the Board of Directors on June 28, 1965. He was a great man with a outstanding talent and he devoted his life to his job and his professional career. At 43, Mr. Knudsen became the youngest General Manager in Pontiac division's history. In 1956, Mr. Knudsen was credited with creating and developing the Pontiac model line from its stodgy image and elevating it to third place in the auto industry by 1959. In the image below, Mr. Knudsen his proudly accepting the annual International Fashion Council award for the outstanding design of the 1960 Pontiac from Mr. Jana Ages.
 
Knudsen accepting the annual international fashion council award
 
 On June 10th 1963, Mr. Knudsen joined at the Tarrytown New York Chevrolet Factory for the celebration of the 50th Chevrolet Millionth milestone automobile. Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller of New York congratulated Chevrolet General manager Semon E. Knudsen and production employee Rocco Morabito before driving the 50 Millionth Chevrolet off the division’s assembly line at the Tarrytown, New York facilities. Mr. Knudsen proudly followed his father's footsteps into the future of General Motors. Knudsen once said, “Whatever sales savvy I had came from two sources; my father and my father's closes friend, Richard H. Grant, who rescued a fading Chevrolet Division, in the 1920's and invented most of the marketing techniques still used by the industry.” In 1966, Knudsen became Executive Vice President for Household appliance, Engines, Overseas and Canadian Groups. However, at the time he wanted the position that was given to the late Ed. Cloe which was a GM Presidency position. On January 31, 1968, General Motors announced Semon Knudsen’s resignation saying, “General Motors Corporation announced today the resignation of Semon E. Knudsen from the board of Directors and his position as Executive Vice President to pursue personal interests”.
 
Terrytown,NY June 10th celebration of the 50th millionth 1963 Chevrolet 
 
Mr. Knudsen moved on to accept a long-standing offer from Ford Chairman Henry Ford II and took over the presidency of Ford Motor Company in 1968. Unfortunately, Knudsen's position was very short lived at Ford Motor Company. Mr. Ford, on September 11, 1969 issued this statement. “Things did not work out as I had hoped they might. It is unfortunate, but I don't want to say anything more than that.”. After leaving Ford Motor Company, he went into the manufacturing of motor homes in Farmington Hills, Michigan. In 1971, Knudsen, became Chief Executive officer for the White Motor Corporation. Knudsen's scorecard and experience at General Motors made him a great candidate for the White Motor Corporation. The White Motor Corporation produced and manufactured heavy trucks and farm equipment. Although Mr. Knudsen had worked at the White Motor Corporation for several years as chairman and chief executive officer, he would later retire as Chairman. Knudsen once said this about the White Motor Corporation, “With success and growth, corporations become more centralized in their control and are more conservative in their actions.”
 
Semon Bunkie Knudsen
 
On Monday July 6, 1998, Mr. Semon E. Bunkie Knudsen, automotive executive leader died of congestive heart failure at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak Michigan; he was 85 years of age. Mr. Jack Crellin, who was once a Detroit News Industry writer, shared “Automobile Business was in his Blood”.
 

A special thanks to Robert Tate, Automotive Historian and Researcher, for donating the story to the MotorCities Story of the Week program. Photographs are courtesy of the National Automotive History Collection. (Bibliography: “Another Knudsen Rising To Top in GM”. Detroit News 6/28/56. Crellin Jack. “Automobile Business in His Blood” Detroit News. January 13, 1963.)

For further information on photos please visit http://www.detroitpubliclibrary.org/ or email nahc@detroitpubliclibrary.org. Please do not republish the story and/or photographs without permission of MotorCities National Heritage Area.

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