Born in Flint, Mich., George Spaulding was 3 years old when William C. “Billy” Durant introduced a brand new car parochially called the Flint. It lasted just four years, 1923-27, at a time when hundreds of new manufacturers rolled out vehicles and most of them failed.
That’s neither here nor there except to remind people that Spaulding, who died late last month in Charleston at age 95, lived through all but the earliest decades of the country’s automotive history. He may not have seen a Flint, but he likely witnessed a host of new brands in what was then a big-time pre-war car town, or later while working in the newspaper business in Michigan and neighboring Ohio, or in the Navy or, of course, after settling into a distinguished career from salesman to executive with General Motors.
Interestingly, the man behind the Flint — Durant — would suffer many financial ups and downs, yet would be recognized today as the guiding force behind GM’s formation.
Spaulding’s impact on GM, and the automotive field in general, was a speck compared with Durant’s. But his mid-to-upper management career would prove to be much more fulfilling and much less fraught with pitfalls.
Even when reaching retirement, he wasn’t finished with his automotive influence. Spaulding and wife, Dorie, moved 800 miles from his roots, retiring to the Charleston area first at Kiawah Island, then downtown and later, Mount Pleasant.
The former GM executive became active in the College of Charleston and its business school. A memorial service was held Friday for Spaulding at Second Presbyterian Church in Charleston with a reception following at the College of Charleston.
Maybe lesser known, but no less significant at least to the local motoring public, was the column he wrote for The Post and Courier on the automotive industry for 25 years (I edited it for the last eight years or so). Logging close to 1,600 columns by the time he stopped in 2012, Spaulding wrote on all kinds of topics from ethanol as a gas alternative or additive (he didn’t like it, feeling the agricultural costs weren’t worth the fuel conservation gains) to the day-to-day jobs of local car dealers (whom he admired). He wrote on serious subjects such as drunk driving and light-hearted ones, too, such as the Burma-Shave signs decades ago with catchy serialized jingles spread across barren Western states, a somewhat more high-brow predecessor to South of the Border’s kitschy billboards on I-95. He was willing to fire a few well-meaning barbs to go along with platitudes about the Detroit Big Three, imports and the South Carolina automotive economy. Spaulding was familiar firsthand with the European car industry, having worked as a top executive for a number of years at GM’s Opel division. And he put his money where his mouth is, in later years driving a compact Pontiac Vibe offering low-to-mid 30s mpg.
Spaulding was tall, slightly stooped in older age but still had a presence. He was genial, quick with a quip and not afraid to call top brass when he worried the newspaper’s automotive coverage was waning. He and Dorie doted on their children — who live as far away as Colorado — grandchildren and a few greats.
George Spaulding would have loved to be writing in this day and time witnessing the state’s car-driven economic boost, the Mercedes Sprinter van operation in Ladson, Volvo’s $500 million investment and 2,000-4,000 jobs planned at its first U.S. auto plant to be built in Ridgeville. And of course, there’s BMW in the Upstate, which Spaulding chronicled often to show how South Carolina was a smart choice for the German automaker.
These words come from knowing and working with George since the mid 2000s. They also reflect an “only in America” personal tie that we shared. He grew up in the same town where my paternal grandparents lived for 30 years. My grandfather (and my dad for a few years) worked on the factory floor at the Fisher Body Plant in Flint, run by none other than GM.
Yet even if we had never discovered a car connection, somehow I believe I would have crossed paths with George at some point, and he would have struck up a humorous, insightful, reminiscing conversation about automobiles that would have put you at ease. If you don’t think so, consider the signature send-off on his column, typed and delivered nearly every week of every month of every year from 1987 to 2012.
Reach Jim Parker at 937-5542 or firstname.lastname@example.org.