Salvage Yard Classic & Automotive History: 1987 Chevrolet Caprice Classic Landaulet – Roger Wanted To Bury The Hatchet

Much has been written over the years about former General Motors CEO Roger Smith.  His various and diverse foibles in attempting to better position the company to face a rapidly changing marketplace during the 1980s have certainly provided a wealth of writing fodder and critique.  Rightly or wrongly, Smith’s tenure at the helm of General Motors is often regarded as a failure, despite his genuine ambition to improve the company’s fortunes.

But these failures are not a reflection of any lack of effort on Smith’s part, however misguided these efforts may have been.  For this particular slice of Smith’s tenure, we need to explore the particular sub-plot of Smith’s tenure which involves Electronic Data Systems founder, and 1992 United States Presidential candidate, H. Ross Perot.

Born in Ohio, Roger Smith spent the entirety of his career at General Motors.  After leaving the United States Navy, Smith earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1947 and went to work for GM in 1949.  Starting off as an accounting clerk he continually progressed in his career to become chairman of the board in 1981, where he would stay until 1990.

H. Ross Perot, born in Texarkana, Texas, went to work for IBM upon leaving the United States Navy.  A perpetual high achiever, Perot once met his annual sales quota at IBM in a mere two weeks.  Having his ideas for improvement ignored by management, Perot left IBM in 1962 and founded Electronic Data Systems.  Perot has been described as being the Bill Gates of the 1960s.

In 1984, a Smith helmed General Motors bought a controlling interest of Perot’s EDS for $2.4 billion.  Due to the various terms and compensations associated with this acquisition, Perot suddenly became GM’s largest single stockholder and found himself on the board of General Motors.

This is where things started to unravel – or get really interesting, depending upon one’s viewpoint.  Perot’s calculated yet full-throttle approach could not be described as having gelled with the delicate, nuanced demeanor Smith had developed from decades of exposure to General Motors’ non-confrontational culture.

As Perot once said:

I come from an environment where, if you see a snake, you kill it. At GM, if you see a snake, the first thing you do is go hire a consultant on snakes. Then you get a committee on snakes, and then you discuss it for a couple of years. The most likely course of action is—nothing. You figure, the snake hasn’t bitten anybody yet, so you just let him crawl around on the factory floor.

These divergent philosophies came to a head in Dallas in September 1985.  It was the stuff of legend.

During a meeting Smith was having with EDS, an EDS spokesman was explaining their plan regarding executive compensation.  Smith wanted to execute a plan of his own which prompted some concerns from EDS.  It should be noted that as part of its acquisition by General Motors, EDS maintained a respectable amount of its former autonomy.

Upon having these concerns expressed to him, Smith, who apparently did not care to hear anything contrary to his ideas, had what psychological scholars describe as a come-undone.  Apparently it was a spectacle to behold as Smith has elsewhere been described as typically being remarkably mild-mannered and soft-spoken.

As described about the meeting and Smith’s reaction:

People in the room later would remember Smith’s angry explosion as being wondrous and terrifying at the same time: wondrous for the extreme colors and sounds it brought to the room, terrifying because none of them had ever seen someone lose his temper so completely in a business meeting. The EDS officers stared in disbelief as the chairman of the world’s biggest and most powerful company lost it.

Naturally, this emotional display did not impress Perot in any positive fashion.

The result was an epic trade of barbs, criticisms, and figurative knife-throwing between Perot and Smith.  Naturally, all this mud-flinging was conducted publicly via various media formats.  It was during one of these exchanges Perot used the snake analogy.

As an example of one of the barbs, Perot had very pointed observations about GM’s wood-laden and rarely used offices in New York when he stated:

An entire teak forest must have been decimated for that floor

Smith responded by saying:

Perot’s office makes mine look like a shanty-town. He has Remingtons; he has a Gilbert Stuart painting hanging on the wall. Nobody runs around saying ‘Get rid of Ross’s office’

Most tellingly, Smith also observed about Perot:

[Perot] is a different type of guy than we are in GM. He is very independent. He is the type of guy that would saddle up his horse and ride to Iran to rescue people

Perhaps Perot’s expressing his desire to “nuke the GM system” and to “teach an elephant to tap dance” also struck a nerve with Smith.

These exchanges continued for some time.  Smith, the less confrontational of the two, eventually wore down.  Deep down, Smith knew the critiques he kept lobbing at Perot weren’t painting either himself or GM in a favorable light. He knew his best recourse was to attempt burying the hatchet with Perot.

Smith knew this would not be easy and not just any gracious gesture would suffice.  So in August 1986 Smith hatched another of his infamous plans.

Upon fully forming his vision, Smith called upon the GM Skunkworks to build a car for Perot.  The intent was to give Perot something usable yet unique without being too ostentatious.  Smith figured Perot and his old lady could enjoy it on weekend cruises around Dallas.

Enter one early build 1987 Chevrolet Caprice Classic.

Smith figured Perot would have another teak wood moment if he had used a Cadillac as the basis of his most recently birthed brainchild.  Further, he figured using a Chevrolet on a fully amortized platform would prove to Perot that Smith was trying to be judicious in his otherwise gleeful and flagrant spending of GM’s diminishing fortunes.

To be somewhat vindictive all while appearing to be considerate, Smith ordered this Caprice to have the F41 suspension and to be powered by GM’s world-renowned 4.3 liter V6.  Smith thought it only fitting as the 4.3 had electronic fuel injection whereas the optional 5.0 V8 was still sporting a carburetor.  Smith knew he could play the card of acknowledging EDS by utilizing such an engine.

Despite outcomes that would frequently make one contemplate otherwise, Roger Smith was a talented individual.  Smith knew Perot was a formidable personality thus he wanted to get all the details right and knew just any specially built car would not suffice for a man such as Perot.

According to documents found at the GM Heritage Center in July 2020, Smith’s inspiration for this project hit one night while Smith and his wife were watching a 1940’s film-noir series on their Sony Betamax.

This scene of a Checker parked near Santa Claus provided the spark of inspiration for Smith.  Smith was acting as a figurative Santa for Perot, giving him a car that was known for its use in taxi service.  The inspiration coalesced with Smith ordering this V6 powered Caprice to be transformed into a landaulet for Ross Perot.

Here’s a better view of a Checker landaulet.

As Roger Smith was always one to fully immerse himself in any endeavor, Smith ordered the car finished in time for presentation to Perot by Christmas Day, 1986.  This left those at the Skunkworks with precious little time for completion.

At this point, it should also be noted Smith had somehow not heard Perot’s take on executives being given cars when he stated:

We shouldn’t be giving handmade cars to executives. We ought to cut out this business that if you’re an executive your car comes into the garage every morning and the mechanics take it, and if there’s anything wrong with it they fix it. You don’t know what reality is.

Yet time and circumstance, along with the dysfunctional internal communication with General Motors, would ultimately lead to this metallic reddish-copper monument of corporate friction.

Perot’s ongoing, and some would say justified, critique of GM practices led General Motors to buy out Perot’s shares of the company for $700 million.  Wanting to avoid increased capital gains taxes going into effect on January 1, 1987, Perot stated in the Fall of 1986 he wanted his money prior to the start of the new year.  Thus, on November 25, 1986, Perot and General Motors agreed to the terms of Perot’s shares being purchased.

Oddly, one of the terms of the buy-out was Perot not being able to criticize GM in the future or have a $7.5 million fine levied against him.

Soon after the buy-out, Perot flirted with having to pay this fine when he said the process had been “morally wrong”, continuing by saying:

$700 million will buy you a brand spanking new world-class, state-of-the-art car plant and the jobs to go with it…GM shot the messenger

Our featured 1987 Chevrolet Caprice Landaulet was finished prior to Christmas 1986 but after GM formally severed all ties with Ross Perot on November 25.  Smith thought briefly about including the Caprice as a gesture of burying the figurative hatchet with Perot, however, he had caught so much flack for this deal his delicate and nuanced demeanor prevented him from taking that risk.  The Caprice soon fell from the scope of his attention.

After the Perot buy-out, little is known about the life trajectory of this Caprice other than it somehow left the cradling arms of General Motors and worked its way south.  This Caprice is now biding its time in a salvage yard near Brazito, Missouri.