Aug. 7, 1927 – March 21, 2020
James W. McLernon, who rose from the production line at the General Motors Powertrain plant in the Town of Tonawanda to become a prominent auto industry executive, died March 21 under hospice care in his home in Bloomfield Hills, Mich. He was 92.
Within 20 years of starting at GM, he was general manager of its Chevrolet Division.
He went on to be the first president of Volkswagen of America and was among the group of auto executives who created American Axle and Manufacturing Corp. in the 1990s.
Mr. McLernon credited the University at Buffalo with his success and donated more than $1 million to his alma mater.
Born in Buffalo, James Wright McLernon was an Eagle Scout and a 1945 graduate of Kenmore High School, where he was a member of the swimming team, which went undefeated his senior year.
He enlisted in the Navy at the end of World War II and served in the Naval Air Transport Service.
He began at the GM Tonawanda plant in 1949 with a summer job on the machine floor while attending night school at the University at Buffalo, earning a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering. As a student, he helped found the Undergraduate Engineering Society and was its first president.
At the Tonawanda plant, he advanced from time-study engineer to foreman to general foreman and superintendent in the master mechanic and plant engineering departments.
In 1964, he became general manager of the Tonawanda Forge plant. A year later, he was made general manager of the former Chevrolet-Tonawanda metal casting plant and the next year was named to head the Chevrolet Gear and Axle Plant on East Delavan Avenue in Buffalo.
He became general manager of the Chevrolet Division in Detroit in 1968 and rose to general manufacturing manager for GM, where he directed operations at more than two dozen plants and was instrumental in turning the Lordstown, Ohio, plant into the world’s fastest assembly line.
When he was recruited in 1976 to be president of Volkswagen’s American manufacturing operation, it was big news.
“James W. McLernon is a feather in a headhunter’s cap,” Robert Irvin wrote in The New York Times. “Just a week ago he was an executive of the General Motors Corp. Today the 49âyearâold manufacturing expert works for Volkswagen. His first assignment is to build an auto assembly operation from scratch and get VW’s Rabbit cars rolling from a still-unfinished plant in New Stanton, Pa.”
According to The Times, Mr. McLernon was not looking for a new job, but the challenge and the opportunity appealed to him.
After opening that plant – the first factory in the United States to be operated by foreign automaker – he became chief executive of VW’s entire American division in 1978 and managed the distribution of Porsche and Audi.
Sales of the American version of the Rabbit did not live up to expectations, however, and he left the top post during a reorganization in 1982.
Mr. McLernon went on to serve as executive vice president of Creative Industries, which supplied the automotive and aerospace industries, then was chairman of South Charleston Stamping and Manufacturing in West Virginia.
His role there led to his involvement with creating American Axle, which reopened five former GM plants where he had worked, including two in Buffalo. It soon became one of the largest North American suppliers in the auto industry.
He was American Axle’s chairman of the board until he retired in 1997.
He was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1981.
Mr. McLernon credited his studies at UB for his success and he supported his alma mater generously.
“I wouldn’t be where I am today without the education I received at UB,” he said in 1996 when he created an endowment to fund scholarship programs at the university.
For a capital campaign a few years later, he donated more than $1 million.
UB honored him in 1998 with a doctorate of humane letters. In 2002, the UB Alumni Association presented him with its highest honor, the Samuel P. Capen Award.
He was a founding member of the Dean’s Advisory Council for the School of Management and Engineering Sciences and in recent years served on the board of trustees of the University at Buffalo Foundation.
In retirement, he maintained a winter home in Stuart, Fla., and enjoyed fishing, hunting and skiing with his family.
He was married in 1950 to the former Nancy Stilwell, a graduate of the UB School of Nursing. She died in 2001.
Survivors include his second wife of 17 years, Brigitte; four daughters, Elizabeth A., Judith A. Smith, Nancy S. McLernon-Brown and Jacqueline W. Bean; a son, James G.; a stepdaughter, Monika McEvoy; 11 grandchildren; three step-grandchildren; and 14 great-grandchildren.
A celebration of his life will be held at a later date.