Gerald C. Meyers, a former chief executive of the American Motors Corporation who helped spark the nation’s obsession with sport utility vehicles and oversaw the development of some of the quirkiest cars of the 1970s, died on June 19 at his home in West Bloomfield, Mich. He was 94.
His death was announced by his daughter Susan Meyers.
Mr. Meyers joined American Motors in 1962, after stints with Ford and Chrysler, and rose through the ranks as AMC fought to survive in a market dominated by his former employers and General Motors, the so-called Big Three; at the time, they collectively produced nine out of every 10 cars sold in the United States.
In 1970, as a senior manufacturing executive, Mr. Meyers was given the task of evaluating a possible acquisition of Kaiser Jeep. He advised AMC’s board against it, noting the brand’s serious production inefficiencies. But the board proceeded anyway — and put Mr. Meyers in charge.
To appeal to more consumers, he upgraded existing Jeeps with better engines, suspensions and interiors, and directed the development of a new wagon, the Jeep Cherokee, which came out in the spring of 1974. Sales soon surged, steadying AMC’s shaky finances and driving consumer interest in roomy off-road vehicles.
Mr. Meyers was soon promoted to AMC’s top development executive. He led the design of a compact car that wouldn’t leave occupants feeling cramped, an effort that resulted, in 1975, in the Pacer: a short, wide four-passenger car with oddly curved rear windows.
The Pacer’s glass-bubble look drew joking comparisons to the flying space cars of the TV cartoon show “The Jetsons,” although Motor Trend magazine called it “the freshest, most creative, most people-oriented auto to be born in the U.S. in 15 years.” Other offbeat cars followed, including one that married Jeep components with a car body — the AMC Eagle, the first passenger car with all-wheel drive made in the United States.
Mr. Meyers, at 48, was named chief executive in 1977, when AMC was struggling, controlling just 2 percent of the U.S. market. At 6 feet 2 inches tall, with the build of the former college football player he was and the looks of a Hollywood leading man, he cut an imposing figure. He was known as an analytical yet demanding manager — a contrast to his brash, tough-talking rival Lee Iacocca, who was scrambling to save Chrysler.
“My way of doing things is different,” Mr. Meyers told The Detroit Free Press that year. “I do not intend to do things the way they were done before. I intend to strike out in other directions and break some new ground.”
AMC reported record profits in his second year at the helm, but when the U.S. economy slumped in 1979, banks declined to give AMC new loans. Mr. Meyers sought a partner and found one in the French automaker Renault, which bought a stake in AMC for $150 million (about $670 million today).
AMC started selling Renault cars, and the two companies began jointly developing a new compact sedan to be called the Alliance.
But AMC’s troubles continued. In 1982, Renault installed a new management team, and Mr. Meyers retired at 53. Chrysler acquired AMC in 1987, disbanding most of its operations but keeping the Jeep brand.
Mr. Meyers then began teaching at his alma mater, Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. He wrote two books on corporate crisis management, one co-written with his daughter Susan. From 1991 to 2017 he taught at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan.
He relaxed by sailing a catamaran. “If there was a breeze, and it got up on one hull, he was happy,” Susan Meyers said.
Mr. Meyers’s impact on the industry can still be seen today. Cars with all-wheel drive make up a profitable niche for brands like Subaru and Audi. The Pacer achieved cult fame, having appeared as the powder-blue ride of Mike Myers’s character in the two “Wayne’s World” movies. And Americans’ fondness for Jeep-like vehicles hasn’t relented. Today half of all vehicles sold in the United States are classified as S.U.V.s.
Gerald Carl Meyers was born on Dec. 5, 1928, in Buffalo. His father, Meyer Smuzek, was an immigrant from Poland who worked in New York City’s garment district before moving to Buffalo, where he changed his last name to Meyers and opened an upscale tailoring shop. Gerald’s mother, Berenice Meyers — her surname at birth was the same as her married name — was an opera singer.
The young Mr. Meyers skipped two grades in elementary school, graduated from high school at 15 and talked his way into a job parking cars at a garage even though he didn’t know how to drive. “I banged up a few,” he laughed in a home video. After a year at Canisius College in Buffalo, he transferred to Carnegie Mellon — then called Carnegie Technical Institute — where he captained the football team. After graduating in 1950, he was invited to try out for the Baltimore Colts but decided he’d endured enough broken noses and bones, Susan Meyers said.
Mr. Meyers landed a management training job at Ford. But when the Korean War started, he entered an Air Force officer training program and served as a lieutenant in Greenland. After returning home, he received a master’s degree from Carnegie Tech in 1954, then found a job at Chrysler, where he often wore suits and coats made by his father.
At 26, he wrote out his life goals on a sheet of paper. He wanted to marry by the age of 30 and have two children by 33 and a third by 35. He wanted to make $30,000 a year by age 45 (the equivalent about $340,000 today) and $50,000 by 55, and he listed all the positions he thought he’d need to reach on the way to becoming a corporate officer.
While working at Chrysler, Mr. Meyers asked his roommate if he knew any women he could date. The roommate pulled a crumpled slip of paper out of the trash with the number of Barbara Jacob, a buyer at a department store. They married in 1958, had three children and eventually moved to Bloomfield Township, a wealthy suburb of Detroit.
His wife died in 2009, and his son, Andrew, died in 2019. In addition to his daughter Susan, he is survived by another daughter, Nancy Meyers, and a grandson.
Susan Meyers recalled that her father’s steady manner never seemed to waver. When she once crashed a Pacer that he had leased for her, he said nothing, she recalled, and a new Pacer simply arrived about two weeks later. “I think he thought totaling the car was its own punishment,” she said.
Eventually, though, he was somewhat bothered by the S.U.V. craze that he had helped set in motion. In a column he wrote for The New York Times in 2000, he lamented the gigantic size of the gas-guzzling S.U.V.s that Detroit was then producing.
“I feel like Dr. Frankenstein these days, having pumped life into a corpse only to face the horror of its evolution,” he wrote. If the industry wasn’t going to return to making smaller models, he added, “maybe it would have been better to let Jeep’s corpse rest undisturbed.”