WASHINGTON -- F. James McDonald, a General Motors engineer who became the president and chief operating officer of the American automobile giant during the 1980s as it fought to maintain its footing under pressure from Japanese competitors, died May 13 of cancer at a hospice in Vero Beach, Fla. He was 87.
Mr. McDonald was president of GM from 1981 until 1987 under Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Roger B. Smith, who was the more recognizable of the company's leaders after the release of Michael Moore's 1989 documentary film, "Roger & Me." Mr. McDonald said he preferred factory visits to public appearances and remained largely unknown outside the company.
His tenure was a period in which GM -- once known for its stylish Cadillacs and Pontiac GTO muscle cars -- came under fire for producing look-alike automobiles that had lost their distinctive personalities.
As Ford and Chrysler cut costs to stay competitive with inexpensive Japanese imports, GM spent tens of billions of dollars on high-tech manufacturing plants, equipment and controversial acquisitions of businesses such as Electronic Data Systems, a computer services company started by Texas businessman H. Ross Perot.
Those decisions were driven by Smith, whose ambitious and controversial attempts to modernize GM during the 1980s did not keep the company's market share from plunging.
Mr. McDonald, a traditionalist who was responsible for day-to-day manufacturing operations, often disagreed with the direction in which Smith pushed the company, said William A. Hoglund, former manager of GM's Pontiac division and a past president of Saturn, a subsidiary of GM established during the 1980s to make smaller cars in response to Japanese competition.
Francis James McDonald was born to an Irish Catholic family in Saginaw, Mich. He attended General Motors Institute, now Kettering University, in Flint, Mich., where he alternated between four-week stints working in a foundry and taking engineering classes.
After graduating, he served in World War II as a Navy submarine engineer. In 1946, he returned to a GM foundry in Michigan, where he began to make a name for himself as an innovator by designing a new conveyor belt.