The Auto Channel
The Largest Independent Automotive Research Resource
The Largest Independent Automotive Research Resource
Official Website of the New Car Buyer

Robert B. McCurry, Jr. Obituary

REHOBOTH BEACH, Del., Nov. 14 -- Robert B. McCurry, Jr., three-time captain of the Michigan State University football team and hard-driving auto executive who introduced rebates as a sales incentive, died Nov. 13, 2006, of complications from prostate cancer. A resident of Palm Desert, Calif., and Rehoboth Beach, Del., he was 83.

McCurry, who passed away at his Delaware home, spent the first 28 years of his long automotive career with Chrysler Corporation, advancing from an apprentice district sales manager in Green Bay, Wis., to group vice president of automotive sales and marketing. A year after retiring from Chrysler in 1978, he became general manager of Mid-Atlantic Toyota, a private distributorship in Maryland.

In 1982, he joined Toyota Motor Sales, U.S.A., Toyota's American sales and marketing arm in Torrance, Calif., as general manager of the Los Angeles sales region. He went on to become executive vice president of sales operations and was eventually promoted to the position of vice chairman, retiring in 1993. Up until his death, he was an honorary advisor to Toyota Motor Corporation in Japan and was called on frequently for his automotive insight.

McCurry's successful careers at Chrysler and Toyota spanned five distinct decades of the American and international automobile industries. They included the tail fin craze of the '50s, the muscle car era of the '60s, the gas rationing and government regulations of the '70s and the globalization of the '80s and '90s. The products he brought to market during that time ranged from the Dodge Charger to Lexus LS 400.

Within the industry, he was regarded as an innovative leader, who stayed ahead of the competition by understanding consumer preferences and building strong personal relationships with his dealers. McCurry's formula for success included good products, dedicated dealers, satisfied customers and a strong factory team.

Dealers remember him as a strong motivator and someone who understood their business from the inside out.

"Bob McCurry was one of the greatest automobile guys who ever lived," said Ken Meade, chairman of the Mead Group, which owns Lexus and Dodge dealerships in the Detroit area. "He put a lot of guys in the car business and was an expert in getting people to do their best. The foundation he laid many years ago was instrumental in the success Toyota is having today."

At Chrysler he helped develop successful sales and marketing programs that promoted the company's Chrysler-Plymouth and Dodge brands. The campaigns included such memorable personalities as the Dodge Sheriff, Mean Mary Jean for Plymouth and Ricardo Montalban, who spoke eloquently about the "fine Corinthian leather" in the Chrysler Cordoba.

Although McCurry joined Toyota in 1979, his ties to the Japanese auto industry went back even further. As general manager of the Dodge Division in 1970, he saw the growing popularity of small, fuel-efficient Japanese vehicles and helped organize a sales and distribution agreement with Mitsubishi Motors Corporation.

Mitsubishi didn't have a U.S. dealer network at the time and the agreement gave Dodge dealers the exclusive right to sell Mitsubishi products in America. The Mitsubishi-built Dodge Colt debuted in 1971. DaimlerChrysler Corporation eventually owned 37 percent of Mitsubishi, but sold all of its remaining shares in 2005.

Among his many automotive accomplishments, however, McCurry may be best remembered for introducing cash rebates as an incentive for buying new cars. In late 1974, as Chrysler's group vice president in charge of sales and marketing, he was fighting an uphill battle against shrinking sales and growing inventories.

After working non-stop with his staff over the Christmas holidays, McCurry's solution to the problem aired during half time of the Super Bowl IX telecast on Jan 12, 1975, when Joe Garagiola appeared as the ringmaster of Chrysler's Car Clearance Carnival.

"Buy a car, get a check," Garagiola told viewers, offering $200 cash back if they purchased a new Dodge Dart or Plymouth Duster. McCurry won new customers that day and the Pittsburgh Steelers won the game 16 - 6 over the Minnesota Vikings. Nearly 30 years later, rebates are still being used to attract buyers with some automakers offering thousands of dollars on a wide range of models.

In addition to the Super Bowl, McCurry used other sporting events to market vehicles. He was one of the first auto executives to invest heavily in golf as a platform for selling vehicles on television. Nearly a scratch golfer, his love of the game helped create sponsorships of major tournaments including the Skins Games, the Chrysler/Bob Hope Desert Classic and the Kraft Nabisco LPGA.

Because of McCurry's passion for the sport, Toyota sponsors a select group of professional golfers, who wear the Toyota and Lexus logos in tournaments around the world. One of them, Masters and British Open champion Mark O'Mara, remembers McCurry as a man who was as competitive on the golf course as he was in the showroom.

"Bob was a pioneer in applying golf to marketing," he said. "He was the ultimate competitor and expected the best from all of us."

Martin "Hoot" McInerney, who owns a number of Dodge, Toyota, Ford and GM dealerships in Michigan, also recalled McCurry's flair for sports marketing.

"He loved golf and did a lot for it when it was not that popular of a sport," he said. "And he also stepped up to sponsor AFL football before anyone else did because he had the insight to do it."

McCurry's competitive spirit and flair for leadership were apparent when he played football at Michigan State after serving in the Army Air Corps during Word War II. Coached by MSU legends Clarence "Biggie" Munn and Hugh "Duffy" Dougherty, McCurry played center and was elected team captain for three consecutive years, 1946 - 1948. It was an unprecedented accomplishment that earned him a spot in "Ripley's Believe it or Not."

Long after his playing days, McCurry was a proud recipient of MSU's prestigious Duffy Dougherty and Jack Breslin Awards, presented to alumni who distinguish themselves after graduation. He also was awarded the John A. Hannah Award, recognizing him as an outstanding alumnus of the university.

He always gave credit to his college coaches for teaching him discipline, respect and loyalty. Munn was the most successful Michigan State coach of all time in terms of winning percentage. Dougherty, who served as Munn's line coach, succeeded him as head coach in 1954, and until his retirement in 1972, led the Spartans to four national championships. The university recently announced the Bob McCurry Scholarship, which recognizes outstanding student/athletes who play center on the Michigan State football team.

Those who worked for McCurry remember him as a highly visible leader who applied pressure to bring out the best in everyone.

"I don't get stress," he liked to say. "I give it."

McCurry was drafted by the Detroit Lions in 1948, but elected to stay in school, earning a business degree in 1950. The decision led him to Chrysler Corporation after graduation when he joined the company as a district manager in Green Bay, Wis.

As head of the Dodge Division, he championed high-performance, hemi- powered muscle cars like Charger and bullet-nosed, high-wing Daytona. And, he saw stock car racing as a way to help sell them. With Richard Petty and David Pearson behind the wheel, the Charger and Daytona achieved high-speed visibility in NASCAR races around the country. The victories on the track helped boost Dodge's share of the intermediate passenger-car market from six to 25 percent.

Contrary to popular belief, McCurry's nickname, "Captain Crunch," did not originate when he played football at Michigan State. It came about years later when he headed the Chrysler Marine Division in the late sixties. Taking a page from his high-performance days at Dodge, he initiated a racing program to gain visibility for the marine division and to help sell boats.

As head of the "Chrysler Crew," he proved to be just as competitive on water as he was on asphalt. While other boats in the Unlimited Hydroplane Series were powered by aircraft engines, McCurry was the first to use automotive horsepower. With two in-line Hemi engines, the Chrysler Crew went on to win the Gold Cup and McCurry became know as Captain Crunch, which was also a popular children's cereal at the time.

When he became Toyota's senior vice president of sales and operations in 1985, McCurry hit it off with the late Yuki Togo, who served as president of Toyota's U.S. sales organization. Both men shared a "sell like hell" attitude which resonated well with associates and dealers. Under their direction in 1986, Toyota became the first import brand to sell more than a million vehicles in a single year.

McCurry was responsible for launching a wide range of Toyota vehicles, including the Lexus luxury brand in 1989. He focused on developing cars and trucks specifically suited to the American market and went on to see Toyota become the nation's top-selling import brand and Lexus the number one luxury nameplate.

"Bob had the best product sense of anyone I ever knew in the car business," said Norman "Bucky" Harris, a retired Dodge and Lexus dealer from Fresno, Calif.

He also pioneered Toyota's efforts to enter the full-size pickup truck market. Ironically, the first 2007 Tundra, Toyota's largest pickup ever, will roll off the assembly line in San Antonio, Texas, on Nov. 17, the same day as McCurry's funeral in Rehoboth Beach.

"This is really McCurry's truck," said Ronnie Colosimo, a Toyota dealer from Oak Lawn, Ill., when he saw the truck unveiled at this year's Chicago Auto Show.

In her 2003 book, "The End of Detroit," New York Times automotive reporter Micki Maynard attributed Toyota's success in America to the recruitment of talented executives from Ford, General Motors and Chrysler.

"One of the most outspoken and enthusiastic managers was Robert McCurry, a savvy former Chrysler executive who ran the company's sales operations from 1984 to 1995," she wrote.

In retirement, McCurry and his wife Jane spent winters in Palm Desert and summers in Rehoboth Beach. He also served on the board of directors of several corporations, including Worthington Steel. And, he remained active in community relations, charitable events and sports associations including the Detroit Police Athletic League Fellowship of Christian Athletes and the Ladies Professional Golf Association. He was inducted into the Automotive Hall of Fame in 1997.

Born in Burnham, Pa., July 10, 1923, McCurry is survived by his wife of 61 years, Jane; two daughters, Jody Burton of Edgewater, Md. and Meg (Jim) Rapp of Crofton, Md.; and four grandchildren.

Visitation will be 7-9 p.m. Nov. 16 at the Parsell Funeral Home, Lewes, Del. Funeral services will be conducted at 11 a.m., Nov. 17, at the Rehoboth Beach Country Club.

In lieu of flowers, the family requests that donations be made to: Delaware Hospice, 20167 Office Circle, Georgetown, Del. 19947; or The Tunnell Cancer Center, 424 Savannah Rd., Lewes, Del. 19958.