Emigrating from Denmark in 1900, William S. Knudsen (1879-1948) forged a distinguished industrial career, opening assembly plants, directing a World War I boatbuilding program, and masterminding postwar European expansion for Ford Motor Company. He then served as president of Chevrolet and General Motors Corporation and finally guided America's World War II production effort.
Born Signius Wilhelm Poul Knudsen on March 25, 1879, the future magnate received a technical education and was a bicycle mechanic in his native Denmark. Tall, sturdy, and speaking English with a marked Danish accent, he passed through New York's Ellis Island in 1900. After changing his name to William S. Knudsen, he worked in shipyards and railroad shops, then joined Buffalo's John R. Keim Mills, a leading manufacturer of pressed steel parts for the automotive industry.
From Ford to GM
Keim was bought by Ford Motor Company in 1911, and Knudsen was called to Detroit in 1913 to expand his employer's nationwide network of assembly plants. Keen-eyed, tough, and possessed of a strong temper (he could boom out "hurry up" to workers in 15 languages), he directed Ford's mass production of submarine chasers (Eagle boats) during World War I. In 1919 and 1920 he drew up a basic plan for internationalizing Ford production and had control of Ford affairs in Europe. But Henry Ford came to resent his subordinate's independent manner, and Knudsen, in turn, resented Ford's interference with his work. Leaving Ford in 1921, he became general manager of a Detroit factory making auto parts and stove trimmings.
In 1922 Knudsen was offered employment by General Motors. "How much shall we pay you?" he was asked by Vice-President Alfred P. Sloan, Jr. He might have replied that Ford had paid him $50,000. But he simply said, "Anything you like. I am not here to set a figure. I seek an opportunity." He joined GM at $30,000 and within a month became vice-president in charge of operations at Chevrolet Motor Division—his salary: $50,000 per year.
Knudsen was named president of Chevrolet in 1924, and his car's impressive sales gains helped persuade Henry Ford to abandon his longtime front-runner, the Model T, in favor of the Model A. Ford's protracted changeover enabled Chevrolet, abetted by a new six-cylinder engine, to assume sales leadership for the first time in 1927-1928. Ford regained the top rung in 1929-1930, after which Chevrolet resumed sales supremacy for the remainder of the pre-World War II era. Knudsen was rewarded with a promotion to GM's executive vice-presidency in charge of U.S./Canadian car and body manufacturing in 1933 and the corporation's presidency in 1937.
Defense Work in World War II
In May 1940 Knudsen was asked by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to join the advisory commission to the Council of National Defense. In accepting the unpaid assignment over the objection of Chairman Sloan, Knudsen sacrificed an annual income of $300,000.
In 1941 Knudsen was named director general of the Office of Production Management and in 1943 director of war production for the Department of War, becoming in the process the first civilian appointed to the rank of lieutenant general in the Army. In requesting Knudsen to accept the commission, President Roosevelt said, "Bill … I want you to do that because when you get out into the field there may be generals who will try to pull rank on you—they can't do that because you will be over them. I want you to accept it for another reason, too. I will feel better, if you do." Knudsen was named director of the Air Technical Service Command in 1944, and that year was awarded the Army's Distinguished Service Medal "for exceptionally meritorius and distinguished service in the performance of duties of great responsibility." Production humming smoothly, Knudsen resigned his commission on June 1, 1945.
Re-elected to GM's board of directors on July 2, Knudsen inspected the corporation's war-torn European plants, then suggested to Sloan that he be appointed "inspector general" for GM factories worldwide. Sloan, noting that Knudsen had reached the company's mandatory retirement age of 65, rejected the request. The turndown, according to Knudsen's daughter, left her father a broken man. Still, Knudsen served as general chairman of the Automotive Industry Golden Jubilee celebration in Detroit in 1946 and was chairman briefly of Detroit's Hupp Corporation.
Knudsen was awarded Denmark's highest honor, the Grand Cross of Danneborg, by King Christian X in 1945, at which time a plaque was affixed to his birthplace in Copenhagen. Knudsen and his wife, Clara, married in 1911 and had one son and three daughters. The son, Semon E. "Bunkie," was a GM executive vice-president from 1966 to 1968, Ford president in 1968 and 1969, and White Motor Corporation chairman from 1971 to 1980.
Further Reading on William S. Knudsen
The only book-length work on Knudsen is Norman Beasley's sympathetic Knudsen: A Biography (1947), authorized by the Knudsen family and rushed to completion before the industrialist's death. Knudsen's Ford years are thoroughly examined in Allan Nevins' and Frank Ernest Hill's Ford: The Times, the Man, the Company (1954) and Ford: Expansion and Challenge 1915-1933 (1957). His GM career is briefly discussed in Arthur Pound's The Turning Wheel: The Story of General Motors Through Twentyfive Years 1908-1933 (1934) and in Alfred P. Sloan's My Years with General Motors (1964).