« Two suspects sought who stole $350,000 from Target | Main | A millennial’s guide to filing your taxes -- What you need to know »

Former Chevy engineer and Chevy Trucks celebrate centennial together

Chevrolet(SAVANNAH, Ga.) -- He retired more than 40 years ago as chief engineer of Chevy Trucks, but Paul Hitch never goes a day without talking about the Detroit automaker where he spent decades building vehicles.

So Hitch, who turned 101 on March 2, naturally remembered that Chevrolet was celebrating its own centennial this year. He mentioned to his son how much he would like to speak with company executives, possibly even the man who currently holds his old position.

A few phone calls were made, and on March 26, Eric Stanczak, the current chief engineer of Chevy Trucks, knocked on the door of Hitch’s home in Savannah, Georgia.

“The conversation flew by. We reminisced about trucks, how the industry has really evolved,” Stanczak told ABC News. “He asked me a lot of questions. Paul is a very inquisitive guy.”

The highlight of the meeting came when Hitch and Stanczak spoke by FaceTime with Mary Barra, the CEO of GM, who called from her office in Detroit.

“Mary wished him a happy birthday, and was so thankful that he contributed so many great things to the corporation,” Stanczak said.

Barra’s father, who was a toolmaker at a GM plant, overlapped at the company with Hitch.

Very few women worked at GM during Hitch's tenure, he said, and he hired only one female engineer for his department.

Hitch started his career at Chevrolet in 1935, when he was 18 years old. He attended General Motors Institute of Technology, which is now Kettering University, in Michigan, where he studied mechanical engineering. Four years later, he returned home to Indianapolis, working for GM as a junior engineer.

“In those days, you didn’t have too many choices for a job. It was still the Depression,” he told ABC News.

As a kid in Indiana, Hitch grew up with the Indianapolis 500 and was a car enthusiast. Many of the country’s automakers were based in Indianapolis in the 1930s, including Duesenberg, the Marmon Motor Car Co. and Studebaker.

At the start of World War II, Hitch was transferred to Detroit. Shortly afterward, he joined the Navy, serving from 1943 to 1946.

He returned after the war to Indianapolis, where GM assigned him to a team that developed jet engines, such as the Wright R-2600 radial engine. In 1965, he was named chief engineer of Chevy Trucks, overseeing a team of 50 people. One of his first projects was the Chevy Blazer, GM’s attempt to take on the Ford Bronco.

The truck was introduced in 1969, and the company could not keep up with demand.

“Our marketing people did not forecast enough volume for the tooling,” Hitch said. “They estimated we’d sell 300. We sold 5,000 in the first year. The next year, we sold 15,000.”

Hitch retired from Chevy in 1977, and moved his family to Savannah, from Luton, England, where he had last been stationed for GM.

Even after retirement, Hitch would frequently stop by a nearby Chevy dealership to look at the latest models and get to know the employees.

“It’s hard to spend 43 years of your life [with Chevy] and not stay connected to it,” said Hitch's son, Doug.

Paul Hitch said he’s amazed that consumers today drive trucks for fun as they do cars, a phenomenon he never thought possible when he was in the business.

“Trucks have become a pleasure vehicle, not a work vehicle. I can’t imagine how much they have improved from what we did in our days,” he said.

As for self-driving cars, he questions whether battery-powered vehicles will truly ever replace the internal combustion engine, joking that electric cars were already on the roads when he was a young boy.

“Old ladies drove them. Instead of a steering wheel, they had a tiller,” he said with a laugh.

Even though he’s 101, Hitch still drives to the doctor’s office and grocery store in his 12-year-old Cadillac, another longtime GM brand. He said his heart will always be with the company.

“I never had any desire to leave Chevy engineering,” he said.

Copyright © 2018, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

ABC News Radio