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Harlow H. Curtice: Tungsten Tough, Hollywood Handsome

Question: What do Harlow H. Curtice (B’14), Nikita Krushchev, Charles DeGaulle and Dwight David Eisenhower have in common?

Here are some clues:

  1. Curtice was president of General Motors from 1952 through 1958, when GM owned nearly half of the U.S. auto market.
  2. The media during his tenure as GM president lionized leaders in business and industry as bulwarks against Communism.
  3. Marshall Loeb, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, has described Curtice as being not only “tungsten tough,” but “Hollywood handsome.”

Answer: Curtice, Krushchev, DeGaulle and Eisenhower were all chosen by Time magazine to be their "Man of the Year" in the mid to late 1950s.

Thinking Big

Curtice was born in Petrieville, Mich., in 1893, and raised in Eaton Rapids. While attending the Ferris Institute to study accounting, he supported himself by working as a short-order cook at the Blue Front Café in Big Rapids.

After moving to Flint, Mich., in 1914, Curtice began his meteoric rise at GM. He started as a bookkeeper for GM’s AC Spark Plug Division, becoming that company’s comptroller at just 21, and president at 36. He ascended to the vice presidency of GM in 1948, and four years later became GM’s 11th president.

Curtice (nicknamed “Red” for his shock of hair), is generally remembered fondly—a real achievement for an executive in a field known for its extraordinarily competitive nature. Even in the controversial book On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors, which chronicles John Z. DeLorean’s time with GM, Curtice is described as, “warm, flamboyant, exciting,” and as “a man whose mere presence would command attention and stop conversations when he walked into a room.”

Although a financial man by training, Curtice is most remembered for the flair and innovation he brought to GM. In 1952 he approved production of the Corvette to compete with European sports cars and introduced air-conditioning to car buyers in 1953. He also was a man of his times, which meant thinking and building big. As Ed Cray writes in Chrome Colossus: General Motors and its Times, “Curtice liked big cars—he reveled in them, the bigger the better… The big men in town drove the biggest cars. So it had been in Eaton Rapids, Big Rapids and Flint in the first decades of the twentieth century, and so it was in Harlow Curtice’s memory and value system.”

Two-Toned Splendor

It was precisely because Curtice was a man of his times that he became "Man of the Year" in 1955, during some of the darkest days of the Cold War. He was preceded as "Man of the Year" in 1954 by U.S. Secretary of State and cold warrior John Foster Dulles, and succeeded in 1956 by an emblematic Hungarian Freedom Fighter.

These were some of the hottest years of the post-World War II boom economy. According to the editors of Time, Harlow Curtice symbolized both the Cold War fight against the Soviet Union and the post-war surge in manufacturing. Time wrote that, “the free, competitive, expanding American economy…not only showed the world the way to a plenty undreamed of only a few years ago, it was also the keystone of the defense of the West against the Communist world.” As president of the world’s largest manufacturing corporation, Curtice not only led the Capitalist charge, he did it in “two-toned splendor.”

Still Shaping the Future

Curtice died of an apparent heart attack at his home in Flint on Nov. 3, 1962. A New York Times obituary, which ran the next day, credited Curtice with helping to fuel the economic boom of the 1950s by committing GM to a billion dollar plant and facility expansion in 1954. The Times also noted that under Curtice GM became the first corporation to earn a billion dollars in net profit.

While today Curtice is a less recognizable name than his fellow 1950s "Men of the Year," he was at the center of economic and social forces that are felt to this day. Not bad for a guy who started out his career by answering a newspaper ad when his resume consisted of flipping burgers at a Big Rapids café.